New Zealand may not be a major world power, but when it comes to foreign policy it will not be told what to do by bigger, stronger nations.
This was highlighted by Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, who said she would not allow the Five Eyes alliance to determine New Zealand's foreign policy, especially in relation to China, and has won kudos from compatriots.
Formed under the United Kingdom-United States Communication Intelligence Act, also known as the UKUSA Agreement, the Five Eyes is an intelligence gathering and sharing alliance established in 1946. It comprises five Anglophone countries: The US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
In recent years, the US has been pushing for a more assertive role for the Five Eyes and reportedly is keen to expand it to include Japan. But not everyone is in step with Washington.
Mahuta made Wellington's position perfectly clear during a keynote address to the New Zealand China Council on April 19 when she said it was "not necessary" to invoke the Five Eyes whenever there was a foreign policy position New Zealand wanted to take.
"Diplomacy favors dialogue, so it's really important as we stand up for our values and what are in our interest, we look for friends beyond the Five Eyes," she said.
And she said New Zealand would determine its own "mature" relationship with China, which is also the country's biggest trading partner.
"We will stand for what we believe is in the long-term interest of New Zealand. We'll stand for our values, what an open democracy looks like, upholding universal human rights, and we'll look for other partners across the world," Mahuta said.
In recent months, the Five Eyes has expressed so-called concerns over human rights in China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and Hong Kong.
Mahuta said: "We are uncomfortable with expanding the remit of the Five Eyes relationship. We would much rather prefer to look for multilateral opportunities to express our interests on a number of issues."
Mahuta said Wellington wanted to chart its own course in dealings with China. "New Zealand has been very clear … not to invoke the Five Eyes as the first point of contact on messaging out on a range of issues. We've not favored that type of approach and have expressed that to Five Eyes partners."
She likened New Zealand's relationship with China as one between a dragon and a taniwha, a serpent-like creature from Maori mythology. "I see the taniwha and the dragon as symbols of the strength of our particular customs, traditions and values, that aren't always the same, but need to be maintained and respected. And on that virtue, we have together developed the mature relationship we have today."
Earlier this year, New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O'Connor said if Australia wanted to improve its ties with China, it "should follow us and show respect".
In January, New Zealand upgraded its free-trade agreement with China and recently recorded its fastest rate of first-quarter growth. Jason Young, director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington, said Australia's trade tension was a clear subtext in Mahuta's speech.
"I think a key message was－New Zealand is watching the China-Australia relationship very closely. Obviously, it has a bearing and it's a reference point. And it has an impact on our relationship with China," he told New Zealand media.