28 Mar 2024

The diplomatic dance with problematic China

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 28 March 2024

Calling China out for its 'cyber attacks' on our Parliamentary services took nearly three years of careful 'i-dotting and t-crossing'.

Composite of keyboard and code

Photo: Unsplash / RNZ

Our biggest trading partner has tried to hack into our parliamentary network, and New Zealand has come out stronger than ever before with its condemnation.

We've heard words such as "totally unacceptable" (from our minister of spies, Judith Collins); "unacceptable" and "concerning behaviours" (Foreign Minister Winston Peters); and "malicious" (GCSB director-general Andrew Clark and the Prime Minister). 

But those words about China are not as strong as the denials from our supposed friend. 

They included saying the government statement held "groundless and irresponsible accusations", and saying accusing China of foreign interference is "completely barking up the wrong tree". 

What played out next was a delicate dance along the constant tightrope that is weighing China's good ($40 billion in trade) and bad (spying, trade repercussions after international insults, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, repression in Xinjiang and against the Uyghur people). 

Newsroom national affairs editor Sam Sachdeva literally wrote the book on this - it's called The China Tightrope.

Today on The Detail he draws out the nuance of what's happened, talks about what was stolen, and looks to potential future repercussions. 

Sachdeva says even the way it was announced was classic New Zealand understated response to a notable situation. 

There was no news conference, but an on-the-run statement from Judith Collins in the halls of Parliament about a state-sponsored cyber attack in 2021 that was aimed at Parliamentary service networks.

Sachdeva says it's no coincidence that it came on the heels of the UK and US making their own statements about such attacks, but New Zealand hasn't gone as far as they have in imposing sanctions and making arrests. 

And the reason we're only hearing about it now comes down to a mix of "the technical and the political," he says. 

The issue was ignored when then-PM Chris Hipkins visited President Xi Jinping in Beijing last year, and when Christopher Luxon met the Chinese Foreign Minister in Wellington last week. 

GCSB director-general Andrew Clark was asked about this three year silence, and "he said it takes time to go through the attribution process, you need to dot your i's and cross your t's and be very sure before you make a statement about this saying it is a state-sponsored group, because the consequences of going early and getting that wrong would be quite significant," says Sachdeva. 

"There would have been discussion around, 'China is a very important trading partner, a very important partner in general... how do we do this? Do we go alone, do we go in tandem with other countries? And I think that was quite important from the sounds of things, to make sure that we weren't sticking our neck out on our own, that we did have the UK and the US, our fellow Five Eyes members, joining in and saying 'this is not a one-off, this is a systemic problem that we're dealing with'." 

From here though, this new breach of trust by China is another dent in our relationship, which has already been narrowed by the AUKUS agreement and Chinese activity in the south Pacific. In the podcast, Sam Sachdeva discusses where this leaves us now. 

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