Opinion: There has been much debate about the controversial Aukus agreement, especially regarding its consequences for nuclear non-proliferation in the Pacific. New Zealand’s participation in Pillar II of the agreement – which involves technology and information-sharing – would provide welcome support for keeping our defence capabilities up to date and interoperable with our allies.
The precedent is being set for increased co-operation and competition in the Pacific, and it is time New Zealand considers the role it could play as a co-operative partner in multilateral agreements in the Pacific.
The Aukus agreement comes after heightened tension between the West and China, especially in the Indo-Pacific. Each member of Aukus – Australia, the UK and the US – has an interest in curtailing Chinese military developments in the region, as well as its claims to offshore resources and investment in Pacific development.
The existence of the agreement itself and the significant budget devoted to it signals that the Aukus countries see a security threat and are willing to establish the Pacific as an arena of increasing significance. The US has refocused from the ‘War on Terror’ to a policy of strategic competition with China, pouring newfound attention into areas such as the Pacific where China may have an advantage.
Trade disadvantages can be expected, but we can continue to have a diplomatic relationship with China while pursuing our values-based interests which align with the Aukus agreement
China has its own security concerns in the Pacific too, especially its need for resources to support its population, long-term internal security, and the claims it makes over Taiwan as part of the One China Principle.
The Aukus pact being established is a step in the gradual normalisation and legitimisation of increased Pacific militarisation. As Dr Reuben Steff recently pointed out, it isn’t the first step to militarisation. Rather, it is one of the most hotly debated.
Though caution is always healthy, it is highly unlikely Aukus members envision nuclear build-up as a desirable outcome in the Pacific. Australia has assured repeatedly that the agreement is in full compliance with current non-proliferation agreements.
Of course, acquiring nuclear weapons would almost certainly alienate the rest of the Pacific and be counterproductive in achieving security. The acquisition of nuclear weapons is an entirely different threshold which is not a natural or easily taken next step from the acquisition of nuclear weapons-capable submarines. It would require significant debate and agreement from Pacific allies to even be considered, and would be a step of far greater magnitude than the current Aukus agreement.
The concern, rather than nuclear proliferation, is the Pacific will become an arena for Great Power competition, destabilising an area that faces the intersection of critical security issues such as climate change.
The formation of Aukus has securitising effects; the issue of China’s actions in the Indo-Pacific is becoming a priority. The Aukus pact will set the stage for a shift in norms that is advantageous to its participants, namely a trend towards open opposition and coalescence against revisionist state actions.
Future opportunities for multilateral co-operation of this nature should improve regional security and erode the possibilities of fragmentation and diplomatic failures such as in the case of the Solomon Islands last year
This also strengthens the co-operative ties that already exist through the Five Eyes partnership, for example, setting a context for efficient and lower cost co-operation in security issues. Given the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there has been a realisation that quietly disagreeing with revisionist policies is not enough to deter military action and preserve the rules-based international order.
Ultimately, the Aukus partnership is about recognising and sharing the burden required to provide a better deterrent to Chinese military development and potential escalation which has gone largely unchecked in the Pacific over the past few decades.
Joining Pillar II would benefit New Zealand by aiding continued military interoperability with our allies and asserting our position as a co-operative partner in Pacific security. The blowback regarding nuclear non-proliferation should not be as severe as some believe. If anything, New Zealand participating in Aukus should be a chance to explore our role in the region.
New Zealand’s strong values of nuclear non-proliferation within Aukus could aid our interest in strengthening these international norms. It provides a basis to solidify our relationship with Pacific nations, and perhaps even facilitate co-operation directly involving Pacific nations.
Aukus has provided an important message in the co-operative context because of its Australian-led formation. The US and UK can see the benefit in co-operating on Australia’s terms for the purpose of collective security. An appealing flow-on would be new coalitions based on Pacific terms, which would undoubtedly advocate for the inclusion of the pressing security issue of climate change.
New Zealand should seriously consider its potential to bring Pacific participation in its own security issues to the forefront and maximise benefits from the Aukus nations’ willingness to co-operate, rather than simply leaving matters to Aukus. Future opportunities for multilateral co-operation of this nature should improve regional security and erode the possibilities of fragmentation and diplomatic failures such as in the case of the Solomon Islands last year.
Aukus doesn’t mean that New Zealand must ‘choose a side’ and abandon independent foreign policy or its national values and interests. Providing a counterweight to Chinese military developments does not equate to an absolute rejection of our relationship with China. It just sets a clearer boundary outlining where New Zealand’s tolerance of aggressive policy lies.
Trade disadvantages can be expected, but we can continue to have a diplomatic relationship with China while pursuing our values-based interests which align with the Aukus agreement.
More crucially, we can examine the formation of Aukus and its framework to explore creative diplomatic solutions to rising tension in the Pacific.
Australia’s part in Aukus should be an opportunity for New Zealand to consider its ties to Pacific countries as well as its Five Eyes partners, and how Pacific security needs can be called on to provide effective stabilising forces and co-operation in the region.