New Zealand and China clash after west condemns ‘malicious’ cyber activity

New Zealand has joined western allies in a stinging condemnation of China, accusing the government of responsibility for hacking attacks.

Andrew Little, minister for the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), said on Monday night that New Zealand had established links between Chinese state-sponsored actors and malicious cyber activity in New Zealand.

The Chinese embassy in New Zealand on Tuesday dismissed the condemnation as a “malicious smear”, and urged the country to “abandon the cold war mentality”.

Earlier, Little said in a statement: “New Zealand joins international condemnation of the exploitation of the Microsoft Exchange platform by Chinese state-sponsored actors, and the widespread and reckless sharing of the vulnerability, which led to other cyber actors’ exploitation of it.

“We call for an end to this type of malicious activity, which undermines global stability and security, and we urge China to take appropriate action in relation to such activity emanating from its territory.”

The statement comes at a pressured time for New Zealand-China relations, and marks a sharpening of tone from New Zealand on Chinese cybersecurity breaches. It also follows speculation over the last year about whether New Zealand will align itself more closely with traditional allies, including the Five Eyes, if it comes at the cost of closer trade relations with China. The condemnation from New Zealand was part of a US-coordinated series of statements from allies including the EU, Britain, Australia, Canada, Japan and Nato.

It is not the first time New Zealand has accused China of cyber-attacks – in 2018, the GCSB issued a public statement attributing “a global campaign of cyber-enabled commercial intellectual property theft” to China, calling it “unacceptable”. But Monday’s statement marked a harsher tone.

“This time you’ve got a senior government minister fronting the message – not an official,” said professor David Capie, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University. “The language in the statement is much sharper – China is accused of ‘undermining global security and stability’, and the condemnation is being delivered along with a long list of partners.”

Still, the statement did not mark a dramatic turnaround in New Zealand’s approach to China, experts said, but rather a manifestation of differences that had been clear for some time. “The big change has already occurred,” Capie said. “The old idea that a rising China was just one huge economic opportunity is long gone. The relationship with Beijing is now seen as a series of challenges to manage.”

The Chinese embassy in New Zealand said in its statement on Tuesday: “The accusation from the New Zealand side is totally groundless and irresponsible. China expresses strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition and has already lodged solemn representation with the NZ government,” they said.

“We urge the New Zealand side to abandon the cold war mentality, adopt a professional and responsible attitude when dealing with cyber incidents, and work with others to jointly tackle the challenge through dialogue and cooperation, rather than manipulating political issues under the pretext of cybersecurity and mudslinging at others.”

Little’s statement, issued in concert with other nations, will help firm up the image of New Zealand’s close alignment with allies on China issues, which had come into question over the past year.

Foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta had come under fire earlier in April for comments that New Zealand was “uncomfortable with expanding the remit of the Five Eyes,” a remark that some saw as a shift away from traditional allies. In China, state-run media heralded the comments as “New Zealand secure[ing] its interests by distancing from US-led clique”.

In the UK, a conservative MP accused New Zealand of “crudely sucking up to China” and in Australia, media speculated about whether New Zealand was “selling its soul” to preserve trade relationships. But in recent months, New Zealand and some of its allies, particularly the US and Australia, have taken care to communicate their close ties.

Last week, senior US official Kurt Campbell dismissed concerns about New Zealand’s standing within the Five Eyes, saying New Zealand was “a partner of an excellent standard”. “We’re very satisfied and pleased by the engagement of New Zealand in this effort – in fact, I do not believe there has been any discord in this group whatsoever,” he said.

In May, Ardern and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison presented a carefully united front on China, at the countries’ first in-person bilateral talks since the pandemic began.

And in August, New Zealand will join the UK, US, Australia, France and Japan in conducting a series of military exercises in the South China Sea, also known as the Philippine Sea. China has been increasing its military presence and island-building in the area, which is hotly contested and a point of regional tension. Prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s recent adoption of the term “Indo-pacific” has also led to speculation that New Zealand is in the process of aligning itself more closely with the US.

Jason Young, director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, said there was a more natural alignment between New Zealand and the Biden administration’s approach to foreign policy, compared to the US under Trump.

“The US government’s approach to China has shifted quite considerably from the Trump administration to the Biden administration,” Young said. “Focusing on multilateralism, international law, human rights – it fits more closely [with New Zealand’s foreign policy approach].”

Capie said that while New Zealand had some differences in its approach to the US, “I think New Zealand’s level of alignment with the US has been vastly underestimated by commentators outside New Zealand, who have fixated on every difference in the messaging and not focused on the underlying common interests and values.”


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