WELLINGTON, New Zealand >> As China moves to expand its influence in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan and New Zealand have opened talks on an agreement for “seamless” sharing of classified information, a step that could strengthen Tokyo’s case to eventually join the “Five Eyes” intelligence partnership among English-speaking powers.
An announcement of the negotiations, during a visit to Tokyo on Thursday by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, came two days after the Solomon Islands said it had reached a security agreement with China, provoking unease among Western-aligned powers in the region. The deal, according to a leaked document, could allow Beijing to deploy troops to the Solomons, and perhaps even result in the first Chinese military base in the Pacific.
“The announcement speaks to both countries’ concerns about China,” said Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand, “which have been amplified over the past few weeks with the signing of the security agreement” in the Solomons.
Ardern and the Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, made their concerns clear in announcing the proposed intelligence agreement. They emphasized “growing strategic challenges” in the Pacific and their opposition to “unilateral actions that seek to alter the status quo by force” in the East and South China Seas. The latter appeared to be a reference to Chinese efforts to construct artificial islands for military use and its encroachment on disputed territories.
The agreement would bring Japan closer to the Five Eyes partnership, through which the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have for the past 75 years been sharing much of the intelligence they gather.
In 2020, the Japanese defense minister at the time, Taro Kono, proposed Japanese membership in a revamped “Six Eyes” partnership. Last year, Shingo Yamagami, Japan’s ambassador to Australia, said that he “would like to see this idea become reality in the near future.”
Five Eyes members were previously hesitant to expand the partnership over concerns about the security of the Japanese intelligence community. But a major overhaul in Japan, including the passage of a state secrets law in 2013 over significant public opposition, has helped alleviate that unease.
Japan has since negotiated intelligence-sharing agreements with the United States, Britain and Australia. An agreement with New Zealand would allow further access to the partnership’s intelligence output.
“There’s clearly a desire to build up and network those intelligence-sharing connections,” said David Capie, the director of the Center for Strategic Studies in New Zealand.
In recent years, New Zealand has faced questions about its own reliability as an intelligence partner. China is by far the largest purchaser of New Zealand’s exports, which has previously made New Zealand reluctant to criticize China’s human rights abuses and growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.
In 2017, it was also revealed that a long-serving member of New Zealand’s Parliament had previously trained Chinese spies. In an influential paper that year, Anne-Marie Brady, a political scientist who specializes in Chinese influence efforts, wrote, “New Zealand, like many other states in the world, is becoming saturated with the PRC’s political influence activities.” PRC is an abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China.
But, confronted by its partners’ fears and by China’s growing influence efforts both in New Zealand and in the broader Pacific, the New Zealand government has become more assertive in its foreign policy.
“Over the past three or four years, you’ve seen a growing recognition that China is not simply an unlimited economic opportunity,” Capie said. “We’ve seen New Zealand’s government be much more willing to speak frankly about what they see as challenges” in the Pacific and southern Asia.
A major report by New Zealand’s Ministry of Defense in 2021 explicitly warned that China’s rise and “increasingly strong nationalist narrative,” among other drivers, had created “a substantially more challenging and complex strategic environment.”
Thursday’s announcement, Capie said, is a further demonstration of New Zealand’s more forceful foreign policy approach.
“Until a few years ago, I think there was probably a view that New Zealand was a little soft on China — that it wasn’t being cleareyed about the risks in the region,” he said. “That’s begun to shift.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.