Whether we like it or not, New Zealand has become a pawn on the front line of the global stoush between China and the United States, with our spy agency the GCSB following Australia in supporting American calls for tech giant Huawei to be kept at arm's length.

Huawei, the world's biggest producer of telecommunication equipment, was set to play a major role in Spark's roll-out of the new 5G mobile platform.

Competitor 2degrees, which like Spark and Vodafone has already made heavy use of Huawei products in its existing networks, was also expecting to make use of them for their 5G services.

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But the GCSB has – for now, at least – canned that idea by declaring there are significant national security risks in having Huawei involved.


The concern is the Chinese may use the "additional complexities" of an installed 5G network to not only spy on customers but potentially control switchgear in manufacturing plants and infrastructure, giving them the ability to sabotage vital functions of the economy.

Unlikely perhaps, but China cannot refute the unenviable track record of cyber-interference it has built across the globe, particularly in relation to the US.

If the simmering trade war between the superpowers becomes more heated, United States allies like New Zealand could bear the fallout of Chinese displeasure.

If such retribution could be meted out at the touch of a keyboard, so much the better.

Ironically the two other major telecoms providers – Nokia and Ericsson – both have production companies or manufacturing plants in China.

So it's possible excluding Huawei could result in covert technology slipping in through their back doors, regardless.

Politically this is a minefield for the Coalition government. We're just celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the Chinese free trade agreement; China is now our major trading partner, with two-way trade of $28 billion; and Chinese nationals living in NZ make up around 12 per cent (and growing) of the population.

No one wants to upset them. But no one wants to get offside with the US, either, even if – or perhaps especially because - Donald Trump is President.

It's natural the GCSB might back the US and Australian view – we are, after all, also members of the "five eyes" intelligence network, which they will not want compromised – but there's a suspicion the spy agency may not care if it's rather precipitous ban embarrasses the current government.


Bear in mind a plethora of top-level National Party members – including at least three ex-Prime Ministers – have deeply-entrenched business links with China, including seats on the boards of two of its largest commercial banks. And immediate-past PM John Key was an enthusiastic advocate for Huawei while in office.

Add in that National MP Jian Yang, a China-born former spy trainer, and the significant donations alleged from businessmen like Zhang Yikun helping promote other Chinese on to National's candidate list, and it's fair to say New Zealand has been being led firmly into the grasp of China's influence via the National party.

That makes this stoush as much about Labour versus National as it does China versus the US. And while it's doubly awkward for Labour given it was Helen Clark's government that brokered the free trade deal, it's also peculiar that the "natural" stance of the parties, based on the paradigm of left/right politics, has apparently been reversed.

Ideally New Zealand might like to chart a neutral course, but we can't avoid being caught up in this new battle for the Pacific.

And as much as our politicians may be torn over the choice of superpower to ally with, what we cannot do is lose our way by stealth.

*Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet. Views expressed are the writer's opinion and not the newspaper's.