NZ needs to distance itself from Australia's anti-China nuclear submarines

1:52 pm on 25 March 2023

By Bryce Edwards*

View of a US nuclear submarine during military exercises 70 nautical miles (130 kilometers) off Cartagena, Colombia, on February 28, 2022.

Nuclear submarines like this one will soon be patrolled Asia-Pacific after Australia committed to buying a $400 billion fleet as part of a Aukus military pact deal with the US and UK. Photo: AFP

Opinion - The New Zealand government has been silent about Australia's decision to commit up to $400b acquiring nuclear submarines, even though this is a significant threat to peace and stability in the Asia Pacific.

The deal was struck by the Albanese Labor Government as part of its Aukus pact with the US and UK to combat China.

The debate over the incredibly expensive and provocative nuclear-powered attack submarine fleet is raging in Australia, where former prime minister Paul Keating has labelled it the country's worst decision in over 100 years, especially because of the huge risks it poses to Australia and peace in the region.

Here in New Zealand, reaction and debate has been rather muted, despite the fact that the issue has huge consequences for this country and will inevitably lead to some very tough choices for the Government here.

Former NZ PMs join the debate to condemn Aukus

Debate on what Aukus means for New Zealand is finally getting underway this week, with some interesting contributions yesterday from two former prime ministers.

First, former National prime minister Jim Bolger participated in a forum about New Zealand's foreign policy in Wellington, in which he is reported by the Herald's Audrey Young to have criticised the Australian submarine buy up as "beyond comprehension" because of the cost and the damage to peace in the Pacific region.

Bolger said that New Zealand certainly doesn't want any such submarines, and challenged proponents of the Aukus deal to defend it: "If you can find any Australian official who can explain why they need nuclear-powered submarines, come and tell me. I'd like to know."

And Young reported Bolger asking rhetorically, "How mad are we getting?" She says "he spoke with despair about the near-daily threats of nuclear war, which had the potential to destroy the planet".

Following this, former Labour prime minister Helen Clark also came out strongly against the increasing militarisation of the Pacific by New Zealand's allies.

She tweeted yesterday that "New Zealand interests do not lie in being associated with Aukus", and that such an association "would be damaging to independent foreign policy".

Former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark in Turkey

Former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark says the Aukus submarine deal is bad for security, sparking further militarisation in the Asia Pacific region. Photo: AFP / Anadolu Agency

Clark has also lent her weight to those in the Pacific who argue that the Australian deal has been done behind the backs of the Pacific countries, which is bad for the stability of the region. There is a sense that Australia has betrayed its neighbours in unilaterally starting a new defence alliance that will inevitably lead to an arms race in the Asia Pacific.

Opposition from National and commentators

The National Party is much more critical of the Aukus deal than Labour. National's foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee has been strongly critical, saying the deal is bad for New Zealand's security.

Asked by a journalist if the submarine pact will make New Zealand safer, Brownlee, who was a Minister of Defence in the last National Government, replied: "No, I don't think it does". He also criticised the way that Western countries are currently painting China as "the enemy", saying "I'm not sure that's the right sort of thinking".

"What I don't like is the concept that we just seem to be dividing the world," he added.

Brownlee has also criticised Australia's decision because it will created problems working with New Zealand, especially because of the nuclear elements of the new submarines. Such submarines will be barred from New Zealand waters.

National's criticisms of the Australian submarine policy won't go down well with many other politicians. Already New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has condemned the notion that Aukus will make New Zealand less safe, saying yesterday: "That is an astonishing statement to make". He called for more military spending here.

Although the Green Party have been conspicuously silent on the huge new military development, former Green MP Gareth Hughes wrote this week on the submarine deal, saying that nuclear war was now "terrifyingly possible in the next few years", and New Zealand is likely to be dragged into any conflict between Australia and China because this country is signed up to a treaty that imposes an obligation to do so if Australia is attacked.

Gareth Hughes announcing he'll stand for co-leader of the Green Party.

Ex-Greens MP Gareth Hughes spoke out about the terrifying possibility of nuclear war, while his former party remained quiet on the matter. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Hughes is astonished that New Zealand isn't debating what is going on, and troubled by the fact that the current Government is pushing us more into alignment with Washington.

"New Zealanders need to talk more about the risks, our decision-makers need to explain why New Zealand is aligning more closely with the United States military and as a sovereign country we have to ask are we acting independently or as a cog in a machine?"

Left-wing commentator Josie Pagani has also come out today against the Aukus deal. "The agreement is unnecessarily provocative to China, possibly foolhardy in its nuclear proliferation," he said. "It is not clear what Australia achieves by positioning nuclear submarines in the South China Sea, a long way from home."

Also today, former United Future party leader Peter Dunne has penned a column calling for more debate on what Aukus will mean for New Zealand and the Asia Pacific. He argues that the way Aukus has been developed gives "the clear impression that Aukus is more a vehicle to reassert US influence in the region than a genuine multilateral security pact".

Dunne says that Prime Minister Chris Hipkins can't continue to paint the issue as one that doesn't involve New Zealand or require a reaction.

Questions over New Zealand's independent foreign policy

Political scientist Nicholas Khoo, of the University of Otago, argues this week that the New Zealand government has been deliberately opaque in its reaction to the Aukus developments, saying Labour is "hedging" on the issue with its response of "ambiguity". He points out that when the Aukus deal was first announced the then prime minister Jacinda Ardern was careful to welcome it and express her pleasure about the investment, and only citing New Zealand's ban on nuclear vessels as a problem for the deal.

US President Joe Biden (C), British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (R) and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (L) hold a press conference during the AUKUS summit on March 13, 2023, at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego California. - AUKUS is a trilateral security pact announced on September 15, 2021, for the Indo-Pacific region. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)

Anthony Albanese (left), Joe Biden (centre) and British Minister Rishi Sunak (right) hold a press conference during the AUKUS summit on 13 March 2023 at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego California. Photo: AFP

But he says as the submarine alliance develops there it will make such equivocal stances less possible for New Zealand, and New Zealand's independent foreign policy will become harder to maintain. In particular, there will be pressure on New Zealand to respond positively to the development.

The Labour Government has already purchased new sub-hunting P8-Poseidon aircraft. These will be expected to work closely with the Australian submarine fleet to hunt Chinese subs. And in doing so, New Zealand will not only be painting a military target on its back in working with Australia, but it will be alienating itself from our biggest trade partner, China.

The tight-rope act of staying onside with both Washington and Beijing will get more difficult. Of course, this week the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nanaia Manuta, has travelled to Beijing. It's partly a symbol of New Zealand's increasingly strained relations with China that such a trip hasn't occurred for four years. But she will be trying to mend fences.

At the same time, however, the United States Government sent their "Indo-Pacific czar" Kurt Campbell to Wellington, who spoke out publicly about being in "deep discussion" with the Government about increasing NZ-US defence arrangements, including how New Zealand could become involved in Aukus. In terms of this, he said: "We will be announcing soon that we want to launch a bilateral engagement between the United States and New Zealand on technology".

After talking to the New Zealand Government, Campbell also claimed: "We agreed that we would launch the critical components of Aukus, and then take steps to look at other partners" like New Zealand.

Security choices for New Zealand

Aukus developments will eventually require New Zealand to make some choices. As Peter Dunne argues today, New Zealand is likely to be pushed off its high-wire tightrope act between Washington and Beijing.

"As the Aukus debate intensifies, New Zealand's careful, fence-straddling diplomacy of the past two decades will be tested as never before. We cannot afford both our current level of relationship with China and involvement with Aukus. As Aukus develops, China is likely to force us to make clear where we stand."

At the moment, New Zealand really has three options in terms of Aukus - attempt to join the broad programme in a supportive and auxiliary way; keep a distance, and diplomatically stay silent on the developments, or finally, stand up against the militarisation of the Asia Pacific by condemning the development.

Campbell's visit to New Zealand clearly shows that the first option is possible. This would amount to New Zealand going along with the new "might is right" doctrine that is building up. But, more likely, New Zealand will continue to try to keep onside with Western allies without fully joining in or opposing the increasing militarisation. But this is unlikely to be sustainable.

The third option of greater independence and neutrality is also possible. The Māori Party has recently put forward a new defence policy that would position New Zealand as neutral - a "Switzerland of the Pacific". This is an idea that needs more debate.

Some academics are arguing that New Zealand might actually be advantaged by being sidelined and right out of any US-UK-Australia security alliance. For instance, Prof Robert Patman of the University of Otago, has argued this week that New Zealand stood to benefit by staying outside of Aukus completely and could "diversify its trade more easily with south-east Asian nations that did not like the tie-up".

Clearly, a new cold war is quickly developing - and one that could soon be a hot war. This comes exactly 20 years after countries like the US, UK and Australia illegally invaded Iraq, leading to disaster. New Zealand would do well to avoid the same drumbeats to war that we are hearing at the moment.

*Dr Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Government and Public Policy at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

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