NZ’s tightrope diplomacy in Indo-Pacific under test

AUKUS is a huge provocation to China: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (left), US President Joe Biden (centre) and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (right) (AFP Photo via RNZ)

Venu Menon
Wellington, April 11, 2023

The AUKUS submarine deal, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US aimed at upgrading Australia’s naval attack capability, has stirred the waters in the Indo-Pacific region.

Under the deal, Australia will buy and build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines at a cost of $ 394 bn over a period of 30 years.

New Zealand, which was left out of the accord, is toying with the idea of joining the club via a side door, with the Labour government actively considering a proposal put forward by US national security council coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, who visited Wellington recently.

Campbell proposed NZ could join Pillar 11 of the pact and access advanced technologies which would include “artificial intelligence, quantum computing, cyber, undersea capabilities, hypersonic weaponry, information sharing and electronic warfare.”

Purists are opposed to the US proposal on grounds that Wellington would be compromising its long-held anti-nuclear stance, which is the cornerstone of its independent foreign policy.

But NZ Minister of Defence Andrew Little appears to tilt in favour of aligning the New Zealand Defence Forces (NZDF) with their “key military partners” (Australia, the UK and the US).

The thinking appears to be that if NZ rejects Pillar 11 of Aukus it risks falling out of step with the Five Eyes intelligence sharing arrangement alongside the US, the UK, Canada and Australia.

But gaining access to emerging technologies is only part of the dilemma posed by Aukus. NZ has to consider the broader picture of the superpower rivalry currently playing out between the US and China.

While the Aukus security alliance is not overtly a strategy of containment aimed at China, the pact is clearly a response to Beijing’s belligerent moves in the South China Sea and over Taiwan.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is not hamstrung by the constraints faced by his NZ counterpart.

Chris Hipkins cannot overlook China’s status as NZ’s key trade partner.

Therein lies the rub. With 30 per cent of NZ’S exports going to China, Wellington does not share Canberra’s adversarial perception of Beijing and is in no hurry to join the list of countries that have faced economic retaliation from China in the past. Those countries include Norway, Sweden, Australia and South Korea.

At the same time, NZ has relied for its arms supply on the US, with the two navies regularly conducting joint drills in the Pacific.

But Pacific nations are nervous that Australia’s security arrangement with western powers could exacerbate an arms race in their neighbourhood.

Aukus is a huge provocation to China, given its designs on Taiwan, which is fast emerging as a flashpoint that could draw Australia into a western axis pledged to protect Taiwan from annexation by China.

The militarisation of the Indo-Pacific region is a strong deterrent for NZ in collaborating with any security arrangement that jeopardizes regional stability. With Japan and the Southeast Asian nations expanding their military budgets, Wellington is now the rare hold-out and the longstanding beacon of peace and stability in the region.

The Pacific countries were clearly not consulted before Australia signed up to the submarine deal, prompting anxieties over a unilateral move with implications for stability in the region.

While voices within the Labour Government in NZ have been muted over the defence alliance struck by Australia, the National Party’s foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee has said the deal does not make NZ safer.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s recent visit to Beijing was clearly intended to soothe ruffled feathers in the wake of Australia’s submarine deal.

The Aukus security alliance indicates that great power rivalry has now spilled into the Asia Pacific region.

The question facing Wellington is how it will sustain an independent foreign policy if hostilities break out between China and the western powers.

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington.

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