Reconsidering AUKUS

Insights Newsletter
9 February, 2024

In a welcome development, Winston Peters and Judith Collins flew to Australia last week to discuss joint foreign policy concerns.

The purpose of their trip was to meet with their Australian foreign and defence minister counterparts. On the agenda: mutual foreign policy and defence interests. The most notable topic of discussion? AUKUS.

AUKUS is the trilateral partnership agreement between Australia, the UK and the US. Its flagship policy is that the US will sell to Australia nuclear-powered submarines.

After their meetings, it was announced that Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles and Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong would soon fly over the ditch to speak to our officials about the ins and outs of the 2nd pillar of AUKUS, which covers sharing of non-nuclear military technologies.

This clearly signals that New Zealand is moving towards re-alignment with its traditional allies. Due to our history of being nuclear-free, it is the second pillar that interests New Zealand.

The development could represent a sharp turn in New Zealand foreign policy. The previous government’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, clearly stated that New Zealand was not considering engagement with AUKUS.

It seemed that New Zealand did not want to risk jeopardising its relationship with China or any consequent economic damage.

This risk assessment was not necessarily inaccurate. Ex-National party leader Don Brash has also argued against engagement with AUKUS on these grounds. In the wake of New Zealand’s potential rapprochement with AUKUS, China’s Ambassador to New Zealand called the agreement “divisive” and said China is watching closely for New Zealand’s decision.

China doesn’t want New Zealand to engage with AUKUS. It would much rather we remain beholden to our trade ties with them than see us form a united front that challenges China’s interests in the Indo-Pacific region.

Of course, it is important not to count one’s chickens before they have hatched. Having conversations about AUKUS is an improvement on slamming the door shut. Still, there is no guarantee that the new government will decide in New Zealand’s interest to formalise engagement with the 2nd pillar.

In any case, open dialogue and a potential re-alignment of interests with our traditional allies is reason for quiet optimism.

In a recent essay published in the Australian NAVY magazine, I argued that for as long as New Zealand depends on Chinese trade, we would never join AUKUS.

Perhaps I was wrong.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates