NZ 'right' in joining other countries in condemning China cyber attacks - expert

New Zealand's "political choices" were limited when it joined other "liberal democracies" in condemning cyber attacks by China, an expert says. 

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Professor Robert Patman says NZ is prepared to speak out with other “liberal democracies” on the issue. Source: Breakfast

Professor Robert Patman - an international relations expert from the University of Otago - said the Government did not have a lot of choice but to speak out, as many others already had. 

He told Breakfast the New Zealand Government was "correct and right" to speak out, but its "political choices" were limited.

"I think the point to note here is the reason we’ve not been prepared to be an echo of the Five Eyes, but we are prepared to speak out with other liberal democracies, not least from the EU and Japan, to bring together what is a very formidable challenge, I believe, to the Chinese leadership."

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Late on Monday night, the Government revealed it had "established links" of Chinese state-sponsored cyber attacks in New Zealand. 

"New Zealand is today joining other countries in strongly condemning this malicious activity undertaken by the Chinese Ministry of State Security — both in New Zealand, and globally," GCSB Minister Andrew Little said.

Patman acknowledged this condemnation had "been in the works for some time", with the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister speaking out in public before about the country's increasingly complicated relations with China. 

He recalled Jacinda Ardern describing there being "irreconcilable differences".

In the wake of the condemnation, Patman said the ball was now in China's court, but did not expect it to really retaliate because it could not afford to fall out with its trade partners. 

This would compromise economic growth and the political legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. 

He explained the EU, US and Japanese markets had helped China grow into the super power it is. 

There were two scenarios — China maintaining its blanket denials on its involvement but quietly changing its behaviour, or it maintaining the blanket denials and continuing its activity. 

If it did this, the country could walk into sanctions, Patman said. 

"I don’t expect China to come clean and say 'oh yes, we made a mistake, we overreached ourselves,'. That’s not going to happen," he said.

"This is an authoritarian state which doesn’t tolerate opposition at home, and we can’t expect it to be candid about its shortcomings internationally."

Also joining Patman on Breakfast was the University of Canterbury's Anne Marie Brady, a specialist in Chinese politics. 

Jacinda Ardern and Xi Jinping. Source: 1 NEWS

She explained the condemnation was not new. This was the fifth time in three years the GCSB had publicly named China for malicious cyber activity, which it does not do lightly. 

There had been more than 320 serious cyber events in the last year, Brady said. The GCSB had determined 30 per cent had come from state actors. 

In the previous year, this was 38 per cent. 

The greatest number of attempts had come from China, but there were some from Russia and North Korea as well. 

"On issues of national security, New Zealand must speak up," Brady said.

"National security trumps economic security. Without security we have no security."

The Chinese Embassy in New Zealand has called the malicious cyber activity accusations groundless and irresponsible.

A spokesperson said New Zealand should abandon "Cold War mentality" and be "professional and responsible" when handling cyber incidents, rather than "manipulating political issues under the pretext of cyber security and mudslinging at others".