AUKUS casts shadow over Peters’ Pacific visit


Foreign Minister Winston Peters (left) and Minister for Pacific Peoples Shane Reti in the Cook Islands on Thursday, 8 February 2024 ( Facebook photo)

Venu Menon
Wellington, February 9,2024

Foreign Minister Winston Peters, in the midst of a four-day tour of Polynesia, has sought to dispel doubts that his visit is aimed at softening concerns among Pacific leaders over New Zealand’s collaboration on AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom.

The pact has stirred fears over the militarisation of the Pacific region that could trigger an arms race in the neighbourhood.

Pacific nations are also sore they were not consulted before Australia signed up to the defence alliance with Western powers.

New Zealand is not part of the AUKUS accord but has a standing invitation from the US to join the non-nuclear Pillar Two of the pact which would allow access to advanced technologies, including AI, quantum computing, cyber, undersea capabilities, hypersonic weaponry, information sharing and electronic warfare.

The then Labour Government kept the matter on hold, something that Peters has brought up during his current tour.

“Do you recall, when it was signed up to, what was the position? Well, first of all, [then PM Chris] Hipkins said he was wanting to look at it and then the Minister for Defence, Andrew Little, said he thought there was some serious possibilities in that [joining Pillar Two]. And that’s exactly where we are right here, right now, looking at it just 10 weeks on, and it’s far too early to say,” Peters told media.

It is noteworthy that Peters has left the door ajar for New Zealand’s future, albeit nuanced, involvement with AUKUS.

The bilateral meetings with the leaders of Tonga, Cook Islands and Samoa thinly camouflages the concern among Pacific leaders about New Zealand’s foreign policy autonomy, particularly in the context of the impending visit by Australian officials to New Zealand to discuss Pillar Two of AUKUS.

To that extent, Peters’ and Minister for Pacific Peoples Shane Reti’s visit to the region is aimed at gauging the possible fallout to New Zealand joining AUKUS, and a fresh imperative for a reassessment of the geopolitics of the region.

Peters has hinted at this.

“Given New Zealand’s place and influence in the region, our visit will also reinforce our commitment to collectively respond to the many – and varied – strategic issues and challenges facing both the Pacific and the wider Indo-Pacific.”

Despite the generous cash injections into the local economies of Pacific Islands states, there is a continuing vein of concern among its leaders that New Zealand is prioritising security considerations over existential threats such as climate change.

Last April, the former leaders of Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Palau condemned the AUKUS pact and its potential to trigger an arms race “bringing war much closer to home.”

The latest ministerial visit to Polynesia comes amid international concern that China is muddying the waters of the Pacific following its security pact with the Solomon Islands last year.

China’s push in the region unleashed a flurry of diplomatic activity with the US hosting a Pacific leaders’ summit and pouring aid into the region. This heightened interest in the Pacific culminated in the US opening an embassy in the Solomon Islands after a gap of three decades.

Wellington is caught in the spokes of a dilemma. If it rejects Pillar Two of AUKUS it risks falling out of step with the Five Eyes intelligence sharing arrangement alongside the US, the UK, Canada and Australia.

But it also has to consider the broader picture of superpower rivalry currently playing out between the US and China, and the threat of that spilling into the Indo-Pacific.

This remains the primary concern of the Pacific Islands states that Wellington currently seeks to reengage with.

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington

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