Pacific spying: allegations and implications

The recent revelation in the media from documents leaked by Edward Snowden, a former employee of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, of alleged spying operations in Pacific Island countries by Australia and New Zealand, may have serious implications for the region into the future. In 2013, Papua New Guinea expressed concern when it was alleged that the Australian Embassy in Port Moresby was used for spy operations on countries in the Pacific. Indonesia was also concerned at that time and recalled its Ambassador from Canberra.

Media reports in March 2015 based on the Snowden documents alleged New Zealand was conducting mass surveillance through the telecommunications network, including the phones and internet of citizens across the Pacific. Some of the countries alleged to be spied on include Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Nauru, Samoa, Vanuatu, Kiribati, New Caledonia, Tonga and French Polynesia.

Reported names of senior government officials whose communications have allegedly been tampered with from Solomon Islands appear to suggest that the alleged spy operation was aimed at the institutional structures of states in the Pacific. It appeared not only to be domestic, but extended, some claim, to bilateral relations these Pacific Island countries were having with others in the region, including China.

Some have argued that New Zealand has a ‘right to spy on Pacific Islands.’ Professor Robert Ayson, from the New Zealand Centre for Strategic Studies in Wellington, asserts that ‘New Zealand is acting responsibly by gathering regional intelligence’ in a region where there ‘are plenty of threats.’ Perhaps Professor Ayson is right. The indiscriminate hostage taking in Sydney late last year by an alleged extremist demonstrates the severity of threats faced by Australia and New Zealand. But it is unclear whether these justifications are sufficient or that spying is a ‘right’ and that Australia and New Zealand were ‘acting responsibly.’

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key may be right in arguing that ‘some of the information is incorrect, some of it is out of date, and some of the assumptions are just plain wrong.’ If the alleged spying did happen, then Prime Minister Key suggests that Pacific Island countries should look at it positively as a way ‘to support or assist them.’

But it seems the Pacific Island states are less convinced. Tonga’s Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva condemned the spying as a ‘breach of trust.’ Other leaders and senior public servants (and here) in the Pacific were reported to have shared similar sentiments. Fiji has admitted to gaps in its security and said that spying will be part of its upcoming Defence review. However, not all Pacific Island countries may undertake such defensive actions, and even if they do, they may not be adequate.

But there may be other implications of these spy allegations. First, it may alter the traditional perception of Australia and New Zealand as a friend of or family with the Pacific. The Tongan Prime Minister has already described the allegations as ‘breach of trust.’ Discussions on Pacific Island social media forums appear to suggest a growing resentment.

Second, it may alter the way Pacific Island states conduct their administration. They may shift from what Rowen Callick has described as ‘open societies’ to closed societies in terms of security and access to information. This may impede research, among other things.

Third, it may raise further questions about the fidelity of Australia and New Zealand to the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) and the relevance of their membership, an issue currently under scrutiny.

Fourth, it may strengthen the argument in some of the Pacific Island countries about the need to engage more with alternative regional partners, such as China.

The Tongan Prime Minister suggested that the most reasonable thing for Australia and New Zealand to do at this stage is to have an open, mature and responsible conversation. This suggestion is worth considering, as the issue appears to raise important questions of sovereignty and statehood. The Pacific Island Forum (PIF) and the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) need to facilitate this conversation. It is unwise to assume that aid could provide some reconciliation.

Countries in the Pacific Islands may need to be assured that they are regarded as allies not aliens if the region is to be successful in collectively addressing the various global security exigencies. The upcoming Pacific Regional Security Symposium may be an opportunity to further discuss this issue. If untreated, these spy allegations have the potential to generate a new wave of suspicion and distrust that may haunt the region into the future.

Bal Kama is a PhD Candidate at the College of Law, Australian National University.

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Bal Kama

Bal Kama is in legal practice as a Special Counsel specialising in areas of public law and is an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Canberra School of Law. He has a PhD in law from the ANU College of Law and undergraduate degrees in law, international relations, and politics.


  • Thanks Peter for posting these documents. Evidenced the complexity of the issue. While it may be an accepted fact, some of these Pacific leaders appeared to suggest that the degree of intrusion, especially by their ‘trusted’ friends, is somewhat troubling.
    Sil, West Papua continues to be a challenge. Maybe the recent ‘observer’ status given to them by the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) will lead to some tangible resolution.
    Iam, Fiji continues to be an important voice in the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).

  • Documents released by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden show that Australia, New Zealand and the other members of the “five eyes” alliance have used signals intelligence capacity to advance their agendas on trade and climate policy. Despite a common interest in monitoring criminal and terrorist activity, Asia-Pacific governments are increasingly aware that the Anglosphere alliance is using mass surveillance systems during international summits, trade negotiations and other multilateral meetings.

    Documents released by Snowden show that signals intelligence capability was used to monitor delegations during climate negotiations at Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun in 2010. This information advances the negotiating positions for United States, Canada and Australia (three countries whose climate policies have been significantly driven by mining and extractive industries).

    An officer from Britain’s GCHQ went disguised as a UK delegate to the 2009 United Nations Convention on Climate Change meeting in Copenhagen, and another was deployed to the UN’s Cancun climate talks in 2010.

    The NZ Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) was also used to monitor candidates for the position of Director General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), at a time that NZ Trade Minister Tim Groser was (unsuccessfully) bidding for the position. Groser was one of nine candidates in contention for the position at the WTO. The surveillance operation by GCSB appears to have been part of a secret effort to help Groser win the job.

    Governments always play the “national security” card to justify the expansion of state powers, but more and more the definition of security is being expanded !

    Sebastian Gjerding, Anton Geist, Henrik Moltke, and Laura Poitras: “For the NSA, Espionage Was a Means to Strengthen the US Position in Climate Negotiation”. Information (Denmark), 30 January 2014.

    At Global Climate Conferences, Spying Is Just Part of the Woodwork, The Intercept, 12 April 2014.

    New Zealand Spied on WTO Director Candidates, The Intercept, 23 March 2015

    Copy of document from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden

    • The article does provide a dimension into the debate on the Pacific Islands Forum and the inclusion of The Trans-Tasman Big Brothers in it and the reservations by Fiji’s Prime Minister to have Fiji re-admitted in the Institution.

      What the Edward Snowden leaks reveal is the hyprocrisy of the Trans-Tasman nations forcing the other nations to suspend Fiji under the rubric of anti-democratic behavior.

      The wide spectrum spying on the communications in the Pacific and on Pacific Island Leaders violates the basic tenents of democracy on an industrial scale and have barely received a mention in the main stream media or a denigration from the Pacific Islands Forum. Such bullying from the Trans-Tasman undoubtedly underscores the realpolitik, chicanery and double speak.

  • Thanks Bal, hope spying will help to gather ample evidence to table at the UN to stop the genocide of the West Papua people. If spying is for anything else than we are cynical.

  • Hi Bal,

    Thanks for a good post. I am glad someone has written about this on Devpolicy. I agree with you that, possibly perhaps, there might be a case for spying by NZ and Australia on other states in the Pacific (although like you I have many reservations), but what struck me as most egregious about the allegations is that we also appear to have been spying on legitimate civil society organisations. Speaking as a New Zealander I find this shameful. Speaking as an aid analyst I think it completely counter-productive, and an action prone to undermining our ability to work with one of the most promising forces for positive change in the countries in question. Depressing.

    Thanks again for a good post.


    • Hi Terence

      It is an issue that informative discussion forums appeared to be silent including PIF and MSG, so raising it here might hopefully stir some thoughts. Thank you for pointing out the ‘counter-productive’ aspect which is not covered by the article.


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