29 Mar 2023

AUKUS participation talks highlight New Zealand's nuclear-free status

8:04 pm on 29 March 2023
Labour MP Andrew Little

Defence Minister Andrew Little recently met with the US National Security Council co-ordinator for the Indo Pacific region. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

New Zealanders are being assured talks underway for possible participation in AUKUS would not compromise Aotearoa's nuclear free status.

The deal - between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom - is widely seen as a direct response to China's push for greater regional influence. The trio pitches the security pact as providing "undersea capability that contributes to stability, peace, and prosperity" in the Indo-Pacific and the rest of the world.

But in China's eyes, the three countries have "gone further down the wrong and dangerous path" and have "totally disregarded the concerns of the international community".

The first, key, element of AUKUS is a multi-billion dollar deal for Australia to get the technology and capability to deploy nuclear-powered submarines by 2030.

The second is about partner countries working together to make rapid progress in the military technology space - which is where New Zealand could become involved.

In a recent visit to New Zealand, high ranking White House official Kurt Campbell said there had been "some discussions, about the way forward" and he expected those to continue.

"We want to take those steps carefully, we understand the sensitivity... the door is open for New Zealand when it's comfortable, when it feels that the conditions are appropriate to engage in those efforts going forward."

That "sensitivity" was New Zealand's nuclear free laws, which Defence Minister Andrew Little said would not be in conflict with the parts of AUKUS New Zealand could be involved in.

Little said he made that to clear to Campbell, Joe Biden's National Security Council co-ordinator for the Indo Pacific, during a recent meeting they had in Wellington.

"I indicated that any participation we would have, would not compromise and could not compromise our legal obligations and our moral commitment to a nuclear-free Pacific."

New Zealand had "been offered the opportunity to talk about whether we could or wish to participate in that pillar-two aspect of it, I've indicated we would be willing to explore it and that's as far as that has gone," he said.

That work relates to collaboration on artificial intelligence, cyber, undersea capabilities, super-fast hypersonic weaponry, electronic warfare and information-sharing.

Little said it would involve the kind of technology "adjacent or allied to what is needed to protect defence personnel": hardware, equipment, and "domain awareness" like surveillance and radio technology. "And it's that sort of technology that we've been invited to have discussions about whether we wish to participate in that."

He was quite satisfied it was quite separate from the nuclear submarines aspect.

"Of course the subs will be deployed but whether it's subs or conventional ships or even land-based troops there needs to be technology supporting their deployment in whatever arena they're in.

"It would be providing protection and awareness for personnel, however deployed."

New Zealand already worked very closely with allies and partners who had nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed vessels and submarines, he said.

"So we work alongside them, we deploy our technology alongside their technology in whatever context we're working alongside them in, so no - it doesn't change anything that we're currently doing."

Another concern was the potential to upset China - an important trading partner.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta was in Beijing last week for formal talks; speaking upon her return, she said AUKUS was raised briefly by China, during a broader discussion about the Pacific.

"The point that I made on behalf of New Zealand is that we don't want to see the militarisation of the Pacific, we're not part of the AUKUS arrangements."

US President Joe Biden (centre) participates in a trilateral meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (right) and Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (left) during the AUKUS summit on 13 March, 2023 (US time), at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego California.

A trilateral meeting between US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese during the AUKUS summit on 13 March, 2023. Photo: AFP / Jim Watson

National leader Christopher Luxon said Australia was "free to make its own agreements with its military partners and alliance partners as it wishes".

In terms of any involvement of New Zealand, he said a National government "would be open to exploring those kind of dialogue and that kind of conversation, it's important that we have dialogue and conversation with all our partners".

New Zealand First leader and former foreign minister Winston Peters said AUKUS provided a deterrent and made the region safer "because deterrence is a better option than ... exposure".

"Exposure, as you've seen in many historic examples - because you have no defence - is an awful outcome for so many people. So this is an upgrade and it was always on the cards," Peters said.

"And in terms of our theatre, the blue Pacific, it's to be welcomed because we have one of the few theatres in the world in the last 300 years that has never actually been conquered. There's been many efforts, but hasn't succeeded, and we need to ensure that we keep our eyes wide open on this matter."

He said the question of whether New Zealand needed to reconsider allowing nuclear submarines in its waters had not yet arisen. "They're not built yet, and they haven't been acquired yet. Let's see what develops."

The security pact was also causing waves in the wider Pacific, with other countries worried the deal goes against the anti-nuclear proliferation Treaty of Rarotonga - to which New Zealand and Australia are both signatories.

Mahuta said she has received specific assurances from Australia AUKUS does not run contrary to that treaty.

Assurances aside, expect it to be on the agenda when Pacific leaders meet in the Cook Islands in October.

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