COMMENT:

Visiting US diplomat Patrick Murphy's message that New Zealand's ties with the Five Eyes security alliance is "rock solid" is welcome.

After a year characterised by ramped-up insinuations retailed internationally by Christchurch-based academic Anne-Marie Brady that New Zealand is the "soft under-belly" of the Five Eyes alliance, it was long past time for a sanity check.

Kurt Campbell said as much at last year's Otago Foreign Policy School.

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There has never been any substantive proof that China's use of "sharp power" here has suborned the New Zealand Government to compromise national security.

In fact, the evidence points strongly in the other direction.

But the soothing words of the former top US diplomat from the Obama era did not cut much public sway in mid-2018.

Murphy is the principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department (Campbell was one tier up in the same portfolio).

So when Murphy came to Wellington this week on a four-day visit he wanted to underscore the partnership between New Zealand and the US. Certainly not to present the United States as a regional bully boy — one which would move to toss New Zealand out of Five Eyes if the Chinese telecommunications provider Huawei is ultimately allowed to provide 5G services here.

Clearly the US would rather we rejected the Chinese firm's 5G ambitions — and Murphy would have presented evidence to emphasise that wish in private official meetings.

Publicly, he said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had asked him to share positive messages with "our partners here in New Zealand".

"When we look at our national security, the integrity of our systems, as we embrace new technology, we're going to address the concerns in the best way that we can that meets our national interest and share our experience with other countries," he told Corin Dann on TVNZ's Q&A.

That sharing included comment on China. "From the United States perspective that's a constructive, results-oriented relationship, but it's not without its complications, and the manipulation of companies and their penetration of our economy in the United States is a national security challenge and a threat."

While Murphy was sharing intelligence with officials here, he publicly underscored that the United States was focused on its new Indo-Pacific vision and strategy.

"This is about creating a region that's free, open, fair, playing by the rules. And from our perspective, this broad region, which encompasses more than half of the world's population, half of the world's GDP, is a region that should be inclusive of all countries, big and small.

"But the reality is no one country should dictate the rules of the road. No one country should be coercive, should be bullying.

There's room in this region for China — for an emerging China, and a China that plays by the rules can bring about much good in the world.

Our concerns, though, are in fact profound, where China is not playing by the rules, is setting the framework according to its own interests and against the interests of many of our friends and partners. That's where the concerns lie. And those are the conversations we have."

It is a critical debate which is playing out in many countries — not just here. New Zealand has to balance its interests and its values.

The coalition has played a direct hand with China. It has broken a few eggs as it tries to rebalance New Zealand's relationship with our largest trading partner.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters' "Pacific reset"; the Defence Strategic statement; Peters' Washington speech; the GCSB's initiative on Huawei are all part of that.

It is unclear whether Spark — and others who wish to use Huawei's 5G services — will finally be able to provide sufficient assurance that the Chinese firm does not present a security threat for it to get approval to launch here. But the decision has to be an independent one.

Murphy and his boss will continue to share US concerns over the Huawei risk. There will be other concerns that the United States' drive to cut off Huawei is due to its growing technological and economic dominance.

Ultimately, the final decision will end up on the desk of Andrew Little, the cabinet minister responsible for the GCSN and the SIS. It will be a tough call. But NZ's alone.