AUKUS a test of NZ’s independent foreign policy

Mar 29, 2023
National flag of New Zealand

The AUKUS nuclear submarine deal presents New Zealand with a difficult dilemma. On one hand old allies are forming a military alliance to confront an emergent China, ramping up their AUKUS relationship and their rhetoric magnifying China’s threat. On the other hand is New Zealand’s long standing carefully nurtured relationship with its major trading partner.

While the New Zealand government has refrained from joining the debate, some influential opinions have been firmly negative about the deal and its influence on reshaping the security environment of the Indo Pacific region.

The relatively new Prime Minister Chris Hipkins (sworn in January 25, 2023) appears to be reluctant to rush to judgement about AUKUS, especially as pressure comes on from Washington DC for New Zealand to shift its position.

Some of the strongest reaction comes from the National Party Opposition, whose Foreign Affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee was asked directly if AUKUS makes New Zealand safer.

“No, I don’t think it does,” he told AAP.

He said “What I don’t like is the concept that we just seem to be dividing the world.”

He said he welcomed increased US interest in the Pacific and more aid for Pacific nations, but he said “I’m not sure it’s the right kind of thinking” to regard China as the enemy because it tries to assert itself on the world stage.

AUKUS also changes New Zealand’s defence relationship with Australia. Interoperability would be impaired when Australia goes nuclear propelled and New Zealand remains nuclear free.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said the three AUKUS partners, Australia, the UK and the US remain “incredibly important security partners for New Zealand but our nuclear free policy hasn’t changed. “

This means no nuclear powered vessels including Australia’s submarines will be able to visit New Zealand waters.

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said on Twitter New Zealand’s “interests do not lie in being associated with AUKUS. Association would be damaging to independent foreign policy.”

The pressure is coming on for New Zealand to move its position, although retreat from New Zealand’s non-nuclear policy is unlikely.

In New Zealand politics, the deepest level of multi-party consensus is reserved for the anti-nuclear policy. It was a policy based on New Zealand’s opposition to French Nuclear tests in the Pacific, New Zealand’s sense of identity and leadership as a Pacific nation and the love of the idea of a pristine, peaceful Pacific. The policy was hammered home by the shock of the state sponsored terrorism when the Rainbow Warrior peace ship was bombed in central Auckland on 10 July 1985, killing a crew member.

Pressure on New Zealand started to come on when US President Joe Biden’s Indo Pacific Security Coordinator Kurt Campbell visited Wellington in March this year. He hinted that New Zealand could be shifted from its reluctance about AUKUS when he said he understands New Zealand’s nuclear “sensitivity” but the door was open for New Zealand to join “when it felt comfortable.”

His official title is “National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo Pacific” and his position on China is hawkish. He has talked of China’s “provocative” behaviour and how it “over reacted” to Nancy Pelosi’s (presumably not provocative) visit to Taipei last year.

Campbell hinted that there could be a place for New Zealand in the “second tranche” of AUKUS in the future.

He met the New Zealand Defence Minister Andrew Little and other ministers to discuss “cooperation between the US and New Zealand on cutting edge technologies.”

There is speculation this could involve technologies such as advanced cyber technology, artificial intelligence, quantum physics, electronic warfare and hyper-sonic weapons.

It is worth pointing out that New Zealand has already committed to significant expenditure on advanced weapons systems. Its ANZAC class frigates are being upgraded to prolong their lives into the 2030s, four new Boeing P8 Poseidon maritime surveillance, anti-submarine and anti-ship warfare aircraft will replace the fleet of Orions and five new Hercules will replace the existing fleet.

Decisions will need to be made in the next few years about replacing the frigates, perhaps with the new Hunter class to be built for Australia. A major Defence Policy Review which is currently under way may have something to say about that.

A specialist in International Relations at the University of Otago, Robert G Patman, warned against joining the AUKUS alliance. He said it could risk undercutting New Zealand’s independent foreign policy.

He concludes New Zealand’s non-nuclear policy fits well in Indo Pacific policies and detachment from AUKUS would help diversify trade ties and build a diplomatic framework of likeminded states aiming to strengthen the international rules-based order by measures like reforming the UN Security Council.

Pressure from the highest levels of the US administration presents a serious dilemma for New Zealand’s Labour Government. Joining “tranche two” of the AUKUS alliance could risk upsetting New Zealand’s calm and nuanced relationship with China and disrupt the carefully cultivated independent foreign policy that aligns with many nations of the “global south,” while rejecting Washington’s overtures could risk an unwelcome response from old allies.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!