Is New Zealand slurping the AUKUS Kool-Aid?

May 13, 2024
New Zealand map and flag

Drinking the Kool-Aid is not only believing a foolish and dangerous idea but acting on it leads to unnecessary self-destruction. It refers to the 900 American cult members who drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid at Jonestown in Guyana in 1978 in an act of “revolutionary suicide”. Critics of AUKUS on both sides of the Tasman think our governments need to change their drinking habits.

Both under Labour and the National-led coalition governments, New Zealand has been considering joining Pillar 2 of AUKUS – a military alliance aimed firmly at China, our biggest trading partner. China receives 27% of our exports, poses no perceivable military threat to our security and has made clear that they see AUKUS as a hostile pact aimed at containing their peaceful rise.

The government should do two vitally important things without delay: commit to outlining its case for joining AUKUS in great detail, rather than infantilising us with sound bites; and it should provide an assurance that there will be a political process that gives the public the final say before committing us to the pact.

The Americans haven’t hidden their delight at New Zealand’s perceived shift in stance. Rand Corporation – wittily described as America’s University of Imperialism – is a key think-tank supporting the US state. Back in January, Derek Grossman, a defence analyst at Rand, told his audience that under PM Luxon and foreign minister Peters, New Zealand “is likely to further elevate Wellington’s pushback against China.”

The well-informed Grossman says the New Zealand government seems intent on breaking our non-aligned position and on “trading it in for aligning New Zealand with the United States in the global great-power competition against China.”

The greatest risk New Zealanders face is that a momentous decision may be made to our security settings – with potential knock-on effects to our economy and, eventually, our non-nuclear stance – without any popular oversight, scrutiny or electoral mandate.

Washington and Wellington issued a joint statement a couple of weeks ago committing the two countries to “working even more closely together … especially with our mutual ally Australia.” There were “powerful reasons” why New Zealand should practically engage with AUKUS. Details were in short supply.

Since then the NZ Foreign Minister has been raining scorn on critics, including former PM Helen Clark, former National party leader Don Brash and Australia’s former foreign minister Bob Carr, whilst at the same time soft-soaping the New Zealand population with the soothing message that there is nothing to see here.

“All of these statements made about AUKUS being good for us are highly questionable,” Helen Clark told an audience last month. “What is good about joining a ratcheting up of tensions in a region? Where is the military threat to New Zealand?”

Winston Peters’ riposte was: “The government is a long way from this point of being able to make such a decision. But we should emphasise that it would be utterly irresponsible for any government of any stripe to not consider whether collaborating with like-minded partners on advances in technology is in our national interest.” Like-minded? The US’s role in the Gaza genocide comes to mind.

AUKUS was being discussed behind closed doors long before last year’s elections … and yet never raised during the campaign. The Australians’ experience provides a salutary lesson. They were lulled into a false sense of insecurity back in 2021 – the mediascape flooded with Red Alert, China panic stories about imminent war with the rising Asian power.

As a sign of how successful the mainstream media can be in generating fear that precedes major policy shifts: research by Australia’s Institute of International & Security Affairs showed that more Australians think that China will attack Australia than Taiwanese believe China will attack Taiwan!

Once the population was conditioned, they woke one morning in September 2021 with the momentous news that Australia had ditched a $90 billion defence deal with France and the country was now part of a new military alliance called AUKUS. No prior discussion, no electoral mandate.

The strategy in New Zealand appears to be less about red scares and more about lulling the Kiwis into a false sense of security – ‘nothing to see here’. Will we wake up one day later this year and find, like the Australians, we have re-oriented our defence settings and are now in a hostile posture towards China?

The irony is that the alliance is supposedly a strengthening of democracies against autocracies; it’s just that it has by-passed the democratic bit.

Other stakeholders kept in the dark are the Pacific Island nations.

“These nuclear powered submarines – which are effectively nuclear power stations operating within a boat – will be cruising through the waters of the Pacific island nations without any consultation whatsoever,” former Tuvalu PM Enele Sapoaga said in April. “The deal was crafted in secret by former Prime Minister Scott Morrison with no public discussion.” He challenged the bigger powers, particularly Australia and New Zealand, to remember that the existential threat faced by Pacific nations comes first from climate change, and reminded New Zealanders of the commitment to keeping the South Pacific nuclear-free.

“We need full consultation,” Sopoaga says.

Does joining AUKUS make us more or less secure? There are valid arguments on all sides of this issue. We should be clear-eyed about both China and the US. Professor Patman of Otago University characterises New Zealand’s traditional approach as “hedging” – cautiously navigating a middle ground between the two colossuses. New Zealand is a small country with limited ability to defend itself if aggressed by a major power. Threatening China risks an economic shock to New Zealand worse than when Britain entered the European Economic Community in 1973 – do the benefits outweigh the risks? Are New Zealanders willing to see their economy battered by taking sides in America’s desperate attempts to contain China politically, economically and diplomatically? What lessons can we learn from America’s recent wars – from Vietnam to Afghanistan, from Iraq to the genocide now playing out in Gaza? What is the best configuration of our defence, the best tools in the toolbox, to defend our coastline rather than help the white anglosphere project power into Asia? Will we be joining Australia in what Greek economist Yanis Varoufarkis described as “an ill-considered slide from strategic dependence on the United States to a non-strategic servility to Washington’s agenda”?

As the runt of the AUKUS litter, will abandoning our independent stance make us more powerful or less powerful? Helen Clark and many others argue that we can play a far more constructive role in supporting our friends (Australia, UK, US, China) to pursue diplomacy rather than confrontation and that we would rightly garner more influence in doing so.

This government, with its feet under the table for only a few months, is gaining a reputation for intemperate haste. It should slow down, ditch the Kool Aid and have a cappuccino while a genuine, public discussion takes place.

In government Labour was wishy-washy on AUKUS and opened the door to this drift into militarism. They and the other opposition parties need to come out swinging on this one. If the government signs us up – without our consent – for Pillar 2, the opposition parties should have a Gone-by-Lunchtime policy: that they will tear up the agreement if returned to government.

Personally, I don’t want to be part of America’s Forever Wars. China shows all the signs of wishing to rise peacefully; it has not gone to war since 1979 – briefly against its neighbour Vietnam. In those succeeding 45 years America has never not been at war; it has slaughtered millions of men, women and children and immiserated the lives of tens of millions. Now they are pivoting to Asia. God save us all. I’ll pass on the Kool Aid, thanks.


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