AUKUS and US militarisation a concern for NZ sovereignty

Dec 27, 2023
US Australia and Great Britain flags paint over on chess king. AUKUS defence pact.

As the New Zealand coalition government backs closer alignment with US geo-strategic interests, critics warn of instability and loss of sovereignty in a region militarisation is dividing.

Concerns are rising for peace and sovereignty in the Pacific after strong signals from New Zealand’s new government that it wants to swiftly join the US-led military alliance AUKUS.

If New Zealand did join the bloc it would effectively compromise the country’s long-held anti-nuclear policy, regardless of what ‘pillar’ it was under, historian and co-director of the New Zealand progressive foreign policy group Te Kuaka, Marco de Jong, told In Context.

He said the decision would put an end to what was left of its independent foreign policy, as well as its image as an ‘honest broker’ in a region already divided by increasing militarisation.

The 2021 AUKUS agreement between Australia, the UK and the US centres on the tripartite development of a nuclear submarine fleet within a security partnership geared to upholding the so-called “rules-based international order,” as well as a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Though not stated explicitly, it is seen as an anti-China alliance, based on a hyped-up threat of Beijing to the region.

It was announced in March that SNN-AUKUS nuclear submarines would be delivered to Australia by the early 2040s and the UK by the late 2030s. A bill passed in the US Congress on December 15 cleared the way to sell three-to-five Virginia-class submarines to Australia in the interim by the early 2030s.

Australia’s decision to join AUKUS – with an AU$368 billion price tag for the submarines – has been characterised by former Prime Minister Paul Keating as “part of a containment policy against China”. Back in March, he told ABC News:

“The Chinese government doesn’t want to attack anybody. They don’t want to attack us… We supply their iron ore which keeps their industrial base going and there’s nowhere else but us to get it. Why would they attack? They don’t want to attack the Americans … It’s about one matter only: the maintenance of US strategic hegemony in East Asia. This is what this [AUKUS] is all about.”

Now, New Zealand may be about to hitch its wagon to that strategy too.

The country’s government is one of the most right-wing in decades, a coalition made up of the centre-right National Party, and junior partners, the far-right libertarian party ACT and nationalist party New Zealand First.

The coalition has wasted no time forging ahead with several controversial policies, with a focus on repealing Labour-era programmes within its first 100 days in power.

Early statements by ministers indicate its foreign policy settings will be much more closely aligned to the Anglosphere and US geo-strategic interests.

Support for the centrist Labour government in October’s general election collapsed in the absence of any transformative intentions, as neo-liberal monetary policy tackled inflation by imposing higher costs on the public while helping banks make record profits.

Pre-election, then Prime Minister Chris Hipkins stated he was open to conversations about joining Pillar II of AUKUS, reported to involve a non-nuclear brief, including integration of cyber, quantum computer technology and AI into military operations.

After US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Wellington for talks in July, Hipkins emphasised Pillar II was only being considered as a “hypothetical” possibility, as it was still being defined.

New Zealand became an anti-nuclear nation in 1987, passing a Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act that effectively banned US nuclear submarines from its waters.

It led to New Zealand being frozen out of the ANZUS security treaty and allowed the country to develop a more independent policy engagement with the Pacific and the rest of the world.

New Zealand has enjoyed good diplomatic relations with China, now its largest trading partner.

However, the US is creating a security dilemma in the region by attempting to contain peer rival China in its own sphere of influence, forcing small nations to pick sides in the great-power competition now playing out.

Some Pacific leaders have already warned the US quest for primacy is creating a destructive rivalry and dangerous geopolitical blocs in a region where peace has been underpinned by economic interdependence, regional cohesion and inclusivity.

New Zealand has at least 30 government agencies active in the region and its goal, as set on in its overarching Pacific Reset policy document, is to build a “stable, prosperous and resilient Pacific.” It has signed up to “Blue Pacific” principles of regionalism and Pacific-led solutions to challenges like climate change and economic development.

In a speech to the United States Business Summit in Auckland on November 30, Foreign Minister Winston Peters repeated those goals, but said the US was instrumental to the Pacific’s success.

Both China and the US have been investing in the region. China has been exercising its ‘soft power’ by building infrastructure for nations on a ‘no strings’ basis, while giving billions of dollars in foreign aid over recent years and offering loans on more favourable terms than Western financial institutions.

Peters said New Zealand wanted to “strengthen engagement with the US on strategic and security challenges, centred on our common interest in a stable, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific”.

He added: “We know moving with the speed and intensity required to meet current challenges is going to require all of us to step up. New Zealand stands ready to play its part.”

New Zealand has been inching closer to the Western military establishment, with both Labour prime ministers Jacinda Ardern and Hipkins attending NATO summits in recent years, and both overseeing the allocation of military resources to the US proxy war in Ukraine.

In a speech to diplomats on December 11, Peters also said the government would “vigorously refresh” security cooperation with Five Eyes partners US, Australia, Canada, and the UK, “as well as with other key security partners in the region and beyond.

He claimed the previous government had created a Pacific “vacuum” that needed to be addressed urgently.

A day later his colleague, Defence Minister Judith Collins, was even more forthright, accusing the previous government of taking “an anti-American stance” and criticising it for not having joined Pillar II already.

The new government’s aggressive signaling of intent has alarmed many, particular given the absence of public debate over the consequences of involvement in the alliance.

“I’m extremely concerned, mainly because neither major party campaigned on AUKUS,” de Jong said.

“There was no clear consensus pre-election that this was something that would be pursued. The new Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has repeatedly stressed bipartisanship on foreign policy, so I think it’s profoundly undemocratic to have a Foreign Minister from a minor coalition party signal something like this within the first week. There has been no sustained public debate about what it entails, about the opportunity costs. It’s something that Pacific people don’t necessarily want. It’s certainly something that Māori don’t want.”

De Jong said it would ultimately add to a loss of sovereignty in the region generally, leaving New Zealand effectively rudderless in a sea of increasing militarisation, while pressing issues like global warming loomed large.

“If we can’t stand up for nuclear non-proliferation, if we can’t stand up for the rights of small states not to have to choose between superpowers, we stand to lose,” he said.

Loss of Pacific sovereignty

There is now a fear that a commitment to Pacific priorities and ways of doing politics will be jettisoned by New Zealand to accommodate a US-led engagement in the region, one that has assimilated Australia with already destructive consequences.

A number of Pacific countries have recently faced deep internal tensions over defense pacts signed with the US and Australia.

The Australia-Tuvala ‘faleipili’ deal, signed in November, stands to give Canberra control of Tuvalu’s fishing rights and national security within its territorial waters. Negotiated in secret, without any public consultation, it has been condemned as an act of acceding sovereignty by former Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga.

Papua New Guinea was hit with protests in Moresby in May over the conditions of a maritime and defense deal with the US, which many also say compromises the nation’s sovereignty.

“We see the AUKUS desire, that necessity to have unfettered access to Pacific lands and waters, causing regional political instability and if New Zealand goes down that AUKUS route watch out, we can’t bully or buy our friends like Australia and the US can,” de Jong said.

“We can’t afford to do that. It’s bad diplomacy. It weakens New Zealand and disavows our place within the Pacific.”

It would also affect New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy. Signing up to Pillar II did not mean New Zealand would be excluding itself from involvement in nuclear warfare either, de Jong said.

“Even though AUKUS pillar II has been portrayed as a non-nuclear element of the pact that simply involves technology sharing, critics point out the pact itself operates a military doctrine of nuclear war-fighting and that pillar II suggests creating a single, integrated AI-driven system, where information might be exchanged between conventional and nuclear platforms.

“It is no coincidence the Pillar II research and development is focused on speculative, destabilising tech. AUKUS Pillar II is part of a next generation arms race. This is a collaborative programme of nuclear weapons modernisation.”

Democratic process needed – Waititi

Left-wing Indigenous party Te Pāti Māori, which won six seats in Parliament in October, wants New Zealand to be non-aligned and to remain out of great power machinations underway.

Co-leader Rawiri Waititi told In Context his party feared for the nation’s sovereignty if Pillar II was pushed through and for a ‘democratic process’ before any decision was made.

“We’re deeply concerned with the implications this has on Aotearoa’s independence and ability to remain militarily neutral,” he said.

“As Māori we cannot allow our sovereignty to be determined by others, whether they are in Canberra or Washington. Aotearoa should not act as Pacific spy base in the wars of imperial powers. Joining AUKUS will severely undermine our country’s sovereignty, constitution, and ability to remain nuclear free. There is too much at stake for our government to make a commitment of this magnitude without a democratic process.”

De Jong said the journey towards AUKUS involvement had been far from democratic. He talked of a process of ‘breadcrumbing’ during the previous government’s tenure, where ministers had been led up a path of militarism by unelected securocrats pushing the pact as a rational political response to rising geopolitical competition.

In August the government released three defence, security and intelligence reports, all pointing to supposed threats faced by New Zealand amid rising tensions between an “increasingly assertive” and authoritarian China and the US, a traditional partner who championed openness and shared liberal democratic values.

The documents each set out moves the government was taking and should take to prepare militarily in defense of its sovereign interests and those of its partners.

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark at the time echoed de Jong’s concerns – that officials were preparing the political ground for AUKUS.

“There must be sustained public debate,” de Jong said.

“It is the most significant foreign policy decision in a generation. Not since New Zealand left ANZUS in 1987 has there been such a moment and what we’ve seen is a shadow foreign policy. There has been constant obfuscation and constant obstruction from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Mfat) on this matter, instead of sustained public engagement.

“What they’ve being involved in is an agenda-setting and threat-escalating exercise, which serves nobody. Openness and transparency are not threats to democracy or national security. But a lack of openness and transparency is, which in turn is a threat to our relationships with other countries.

“We’re seeing the loss of sovereignty in multiple nations and we’ll end up that way too if we let a small cadre of hawks and mandarins pre-determine our foreign policy in the shadows and then stage-manage it into being through glib marketing messages.”

Multipolarity and peace in Pacific

Geopolitical experts have increasingly talked of US hegemony being under threat, particularly with the rise of trading bloc BRICS-plus. Several centres of economic and political power are now emerging out of a post-Soviet space of US unipolarity.

US hegemony has been underpinned by a doctrine of “full-spectrum dominance”, defined by Pentagon policy makers as the ability to control any situation or defeat any adversary across the range of military theatres. Many contend that as part of this doctrine the US is seeking to contain rivals leading the charge to multipolarity, namely Russia and China, by engineering proxy wars.

In the case of China, Taiwan is seen as instrumental in doing so. China views Taiwan as an integral part of its territory and is seeking “peace reunification” with the self-governing island.

The US official diplomatic position is that it recognises the territorial claim under the One China policy, while maintaining ‘strategic ambiguity’ to it. That position is becoming less ambiguous. The US has stoked tensions by stocking up Taiwan with weapons while backing its independence movement, raising fears of a Chinese military intervention.

US President Joe Biden has warned it will defend the island if China ‘invades’. The AUKUS alliance would play a key role in any confrontation.

Victoria University of Wellington’s senior lecturer in International Relations, Van Jackson, said attempting to extend the “unipolar moment” of US power was antithetical to peace in Asia-Pacific.

“You have to work within the constraints of your historical conjuncture,” he told In Context.

“Ours is one of emerging multipolarity. What that means as a starting point is that if your strategy is premised on a fundamentally different ordering of the world system – a strategy of primacy to bolster unipolarity – you’re inviting conflict. It’s just that simple. So, primacy is a strategy completely misaligned with how our world and especially Asia is arranged, full stop.”

A former Pentagon advisor under the Obama administration, Jackson said a post-unipolar world shouldn’t be resisted, but it would be naïve to believe aligning with China or Russia could lead anywhere good.

Instead, he believed a ‘do no harm’ principle needed to be followed and “historical sources of peace” bolstered where it made sense, which included regionalism, economic interdependence and a Sino-US détente.

“Most other smaller powers are taking a ‘friend to all, enemy to none’ posture and while that is capacious it’s also the right sentiment,” he added.

Jackson refers to another form of naivety – believing New Zealand would ever make a difference in deterrence terms or affecting the balance of power in the region.

“Those are the games that “great” powers play, and small power that chooses to play a great power’s game is a fool. The question is whether New Zealand wants to use its marginal influence to nudge circumstances toward a better world that serves the interests of smaller nations, or whether it wants to give up even the modest moral authority it has by mindlessly band-wagoning with the very forces that are ripping global order apart.”

A spokeswoman for the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Mfat) told In Context the Pillar II of AUKUS “included cooperation on emerging security issues, including areas (such as cyber) in which we already work closely with Australia, the US and the UK”.

It said officials were engaged with AUKUS partners to better understand the details of Pillar II, but decisions about possible participation would be for ministers in due course.

She added New Zealand was committed to supporting regional security and was already long-standing contributor to Pacific-led regional security mechanisms.

“In line with Pacific preference, we have been clear with all our international partners that engagement in the Pacific should take place in a manner which advances Pacific priorities, is transparent, is consistent with established regional practices, and supportive of Pacific regional institutions,” the spokeswoman said.

Republished from Mick Hall In Context on December 16, 2023.

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