Hipkins non-committal on New Zealand joining AUKUS


More than a handshake, rebalancing relationships: New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins with his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese in Canberra on April 18, 2023 (One News Photo)

Venu Menon
Wellington, April 22, 2023

New Zealand’s foreign policy priorities appear to be shifting in a tripolar direction.

First, there is its relationship with leading trade partner China. Then there is regional ally Australia. And there is the US on whom it depends for its arms supply.

This triangular equation has been disturbed by AUKUS, the security alliance between the US, the UK and Australia, which will introduce nuclear-powered submarines into the Indo-Pacific region.

New Zealand is now having to rebalance bilateral relationships within its neighbourhood, as a result.

The AUKUS submarine deal has opened up fault lines in the domestic discourse around New Zealand’s foreign policy. Defence Minister Andrew Little’s declaration that New Zealand is keen to join the partnership to tap into advanced technology resources has provoked scepticism among senior politicians and spurred debate in academic circles.

Little followed up by holding talks with Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles in Wellington. After the meeting, Marles gave little away but underlined the importance of Australia and New Zealand working closely together.

The ministerial meeting came shortly after Kurt Campbell, the US Indo-Pacific coordinator, touched down in Wellington and invited New Zealand to participate in Pillar Two of the AUKUS agreement which would allow it to access cyber technology.

From that time forth New Zealand and Australian foreign policies appear to be moving in lockstep. They will jointly attend the NATO summit in Lithuania in July.

Add to this New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ visit to Australia over the weekend, and his announcement of a pathway to citizenship for New Zealanders living in Australia, and it becomes clear that the two countries are entering a new phase of amity in bilateral relations.

But not everyone in the neighbourhood is happy over the AUKUS security alliance. South Pacific nations, including the Solomon Islands and the Cook Islands which New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni visited last week, have voiced concern that AUKUS undermines the Treaty of Rarotonga which binds signatories to keep nuclear weapons and radioactive contamination out of the South Pacific.

The voices of disapproval over the AUKUS security accord and New Zealand’s proposed involvement in it include former New Zealand prime ministers Helen Clark and Jim Bolger, as well as former Australian prime ministers Paul Keating and Malcolm Fraser. Former National Party Leader Don Brash has also recorded his opposition to the deal.

Minister Little’s enthusiasm to induct New Zealand into the AUKUS security alliance is a departure from the Labour government’s initial response when the deal was announced in March. Jacinda Ardern, who was PM at the time, made it clear that New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy meant that nuclear-powered vessels would not be welcome in New Zealand waters.

But her successor in office is maintaining an equivocal posture on the question of New Zealand’s participation in AUKUS. “There’s a process that we’ll need to go through in the event that we need to do that,” Hipkins has said.

New Zealand’s defence forces will work closely with those of Australia is all that Hipkins is willing to give away for now.

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington

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