New Zealand have announced they would hold off on criticising the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) COVID-19 investigation in China despite thirteen nations—including New Zealand’s Five Eyes’ partners Australia, the UK, U.S., and Canada—pointing to a lack of “access, transparency, and timeliness” of data provided to investigators.
Governments have expressed concerns that Chinese authorities interfered with the process by creating significant delays, and failing to provide data.
The Ardern government said they were unwilling to join Australia and other allies, as they needed more time to examine the 319-page document by the WHO, although the report has been distributed among WHO members for several days.
“New Zealand is pleased that the report has been released,” a spokeswoman for New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta told The Australian. “As this is a scientific report, we want to make sure we understand the science before making any comment.”
However, their failure to condemn China comes as WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus, shared his own concerns over the validity of the inquiry.
Tedros claimed that some data was withheld from the WHO-led team who came to China in January and February to look into the origins of the pandemic.
“In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data,” Tedros said.
“I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”
Other governments who have signed the joint statement include the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Republic of Korea, and Slovenia.
Five Eyes Alliance’s ‘Soft Underbelly’
The Ardern government’s reluctance to condemn the controversial investigation has drawn attention to its relationship with Beijing. The country previously refused to sign a joint statement by fellow Five Eyes nations decrying Beijing’s arrest of Hong Kong democracy activists.
In January, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece The Global Times praised the signing by New Zealand’s government of an upgraded free trade agreement with China, calling it a “wise move.”
The Global Times went on to say the signing should serve as a “model” for Australia, who challenged the regime in April last year by calling for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
Concerns were also raised in May after New Zealand became the first Five Eyes’ nation to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar infrastructure scheme that has been accused of being a vehicle for expanding Beijing’s global influence.
“Tiny New Zealand may seem like a strange target for Communist party infiltration, but the country is attractive to Beijing as the soft underbelly of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing arrangement with Australia, Canada, the UK and, most importantly, the US,” according to an opinion piece published last year on the British Financial Times.
“Presumably out of fear Beijing would respond with economic sanctions, Ardern has gone out of her way to avoid even mentioning the topic of Chinese political interference,” it said.
In January, New Zealand’s Trade Minister Damien O’Connor infuriated the Australian federal government by suggesting Australia could make amends with the CCP by granting the regime more “respect,” adding that New Zealand had a “mature” relationship with China.
“If [Australia] were to follow us and show respect, I guess a little more diplomacy from time to time and be cautious with wording, they too could hopefully be in a similar situation [with China],” he said.
O’Connor later apologised for this statement and made in-person calls to members of the Morrison government.
From 2000 to 2020, New Zealand exports $16.7 billion worth of goods to China, over double that of Australia, its next biggest export market. At the end of 2019, China was also New Zealand’s largest goods market and the second-largest source of tourists and international students.
“New Zealand has been criticised for its perceived reluctance to join with other states and speak up on matters of concern with China,” University of Canterbury China specialist Professor Anne-Marie Brady wrote last year in The Diplomat magazine.
“It is practicing deliberate ambiguity in its China policy, and so far, it seems to be getting away with it.”