By Luke Hazelton & Robert Patman

Despite claims that a new strategic alliance between Australia, the UK, and US (AUKUS) had marginalised New Zealand, there are indications this development could bolster the significance of Wellington’s non-nuclear stance in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

The AUKUS pact envisages the sharing of information in key technological areas, including artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, to uphold the “international rules-based order” against the apparent threat of China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.

As a first major initiative under the AUKUS banner, the US and UK have pledged to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for its navy over the next 18 months.

On the face of it, AUKUS does not sit comfortably with New Zealand’s non-nuclear security policy. This has been legally binding since the Prime Minister of the fourth Labour Government introduced the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987.

While New Zealand’s embrace of a non-nuclear policy led to strained relations with the US for two decades, it had the effect of deepening Wellington’s defence ties with Australia during this period and ultimately did not prevent the restoration of a close US-New Zealand security partnership following the Wellington and Washington declarations of 2010 and 2012.

At the same time, New Zealand played a significant diplomatic role in the adoption of the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) at the United Nations General Assembly on 7 July 2017. The treaty seeks to totally eliminate all nuclear weapons and it came into force on 22 January 2021. To date, 86 states have signed the treaty and 54 have ratified it.

Australia has not joined the TPNW, which requires parties not to develop, test, acquire, possess or threaten to use nuclear weapons. Scott Morrison’s government has said the treaty would be at odds with its alliance with the US, the world’s leading nuclear weapon power.

However, the Morrison government emphasised Australia had “no plans” after AUKUS  to become a nuclear weapons state.

Meanwhile, New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, responded to AUKUS by welcoming the “increased engagement of the UK and the US” in the Pacific region but said this new group does not change New Zealand’s security and intelligence ties with these three countries and Canada.

According to Ms Ardern, it was “no surprise” New Zealand was excluded from AUKUS because of its long-established opposition to nuclear weapons and its continuing “prohibition of nuclear powered vessels in our waters.”

Moreover, Ms Ardern said AUKUS does not change New Zealand’s role in the intelligence-sharing arrangement known as the Five Eyes alliance and would not affect “our close partnership with Australia on defence matters.”

It should not be forgotten that Wellington’s embrace of a non-nuclear strategy since the mid-1980s has been widely seen as an expression of national resolve to assert a significant degree of independence in the making of New Zealand’s security and foreign policy.

Nevertheless, New Zealand’s omission from AUKUS has fuelled a narrative that Wellington has been diminished by its non-nuclear stance and its independent foreign policy, particularly in relation to China.

A senior Pentagon official was quoted in The Australian as describing the AUKUS pact as a “new ANZUS that side-lines New Zealand, cements Australia’s alliance with the US in the 21st century and offers the stealth, speed and manoeuvrability to counter any Chinese threat to stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Mr Brent Sadler, a Senior Fellow for Naval Warfare and Advanced Technology at the US Heritage Foundation, said New Zealand would have to deal with the consequences of being independent at a time when it was important for allies to maintain unity in the face of the China challenge.

Similarly, Mr Joe Hockey, a former Australian Ambassador to the US, reportedly characterised AUKUS as “ANZUS 2.0” which gives “teeth” to the Five Eyes intelligence network that includes New Zealand and Canada within its ranks.

Furthermore, Judith Collins, the leader of the National Party, the major political opposition group, said it was “concerning” New Zealand was not included in AUKUS while National’s Foreign Affairs spokesman, Mr Gerry Brownlee, argued that the country’s nuclear-free position should not have been a barrier and its absence from AUKUS could deprive New Zealand of access to “important intelligence”.

So are the critics right? Does AUKUS represent a set-back for New Zealand’s non-nuclear stance and the independent foreign policy on which it rests?

The basic problem facing AUKUS is that it is based on a zero-sum assumption that the destiny of the Indo-Pacific will depend on the outcome of a great power contest between the US and China.

This perspective is problematic in several respects. First, it exaggerates the ability of great powers in the 21st century to shape and influence large and diverse regions like the Indo-Pacific.

The Indo-Pacific contains 60 per cent of the world’s population and contains economic powerhouses like Japan and South Korea and the world’s fastest-growing economies such as those of China, Vietnam and India.

China and the US find themselves today in an increasingly interconnected world where there is a growing number of problems that do not respect borders and cannot be resolved unilaterally.

Second, the AUKUS pact does not take account of the Indo-Pacific and European nations’ different security and economic interests in confronting China.

While states like Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam remain deeply concerned bout China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, it does not mean they see AUKUS, an enhanced security arrangement involving three English-speaking states – two of whom have had difficult historical links with the region – as the answer to this problem.

Equally, states like Germany and France, key allies of the US with significant interests in the Indo-Pacific, have been angered by being excluded from the discussions that led to AUKUS.

It is almost as if the US, UK and Australia assume they have a monopoly of concern about the threat that China presents to democracy, human rights and  international rules-based order in this region.

Third, the provision of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia has fuelled fears that AUKUS will trigger a major arms race in the Indo-Pacific region.

In particular, members of The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) such as Indonesia and Malaysia have publicly condemned the prospect of Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, and Singapore, a close ally of Australia, has also expressed concerns.

There are worries within ASEAN capitals that the acquisition of nuclear submarines will lead to the development of nuclear weapons in Australia in the future.

Even if that prospect is avoided, the Australian move towards nuclear-powered submarines could set a precedent for other states within the region (and possibly outside it) to follow.

Sensitivities on nuclear proliferation in the Indo-Pacific are very real. In 1995, ASEAN member states signed the Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone, which was intended to keep nuclear weapons out of the region. Moreover, Singapore is the only ASEAN state that has yet to sign or ratify the TPNW.

On balance, then, it is clear AUKUS has not shunted aside New Zealand’s non-nuclear security policy. This approach is a good fit with widespread concerns about the spread of nuclear weapons in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, and New Zealand’s detachment from AUKUS also reinforces its broader foreign policy goals like diversifying trade in the dynamic Indo-Pacific region and expanding the TPNW to put pressure on the nuclear weapons states to belatedly embark on the path of serious disarmament.

Luke Hazelton is a graduate of the Master of International Studies (MIntSt) programme, University of Otago.

Robert Patman is a Professor of Politics at the University of Otago. He is an expert in international relations and global security.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author(s) views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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