A former New Zealand Defence Minister believes the chances of a major war between Western powers and China in the coming decade is fairly low, but says there is a risk of "incidents".
The United States, United Kingdom and Australia on Thursday announced a new defence and security pact which will see the trio share information about technologies and coordinate their efforts to confront emerging challenges in the Indo-Pacific.
While none of the official statements made by any of the countries specifically mentioned China, it's widely accepted the new tripartite group is looking to counter the superpower's growing influence in the region.
"It's obvious this whole deal is about China, no question about that, and that's obvious to anyone who thinks about it," Wayne Mapp, the former New Zealand Defence Minister under Sir John Key, told The AM Show on Friday.
"It's a big deal. Australia is showing, and they have always wanted to do this, that they are stepping up. They are a middle power, but they want to see themselves at the top rank of middle powers."
It comes as tensions continue to mount over territorial claims in the South China Sea and concerns are raised about China's intentions for Taiwan. Over the last year, several high-ranking Australian and American officials have suggested conflict with China could not be discounted.
But Mapp believes the chances of a war with China is "pretty low".
"The two major powers in the Pacific are the United States and China and they are both nuclear powers. The reality is that deterrence does make a difference between the two of them," Mapp said.
"Having said that, there is a real risk of incidents, you know, aircraft being shot down, ships having conflicts and so forth, so incidents are a real risk.
"Major war, I personally don't think is likely because there are such huge incentives for both the major nations. All their partners will be saying exactly the same thing, that they've got to resolve their differences by dialogue. But there's no doubt about it, there is a great power competition in the region."
Mapp's comments about nuclear deterrence echo that of Russian Ambassador to China Andrey Denisov, who in June said there would be no point choosing a side in such a war.
"I am convinced that there will be no armed conflict between China and the US, just as there will be no armed conflict between Russia and the US, because such a conflict would exterminate all mankind, and then there would be no point in taking sides," Denisov said.
China responded to the AUKUS pact on Thursday by saying it "seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts".
"Relevant countries should abandon the outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception, respect the will of the people of regional countries and do more to contribute to regional peace, stability and development. Otherwise, they will only end up shooting themselves in the foot," foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said.
One of the first projects under the AUKUS banner will be to develop nuclear-powered submarines for Australia - which will be just the seventh nation to have such technology.
New subs are something Australia has been longing for for the last decade. Under Tony Abbott, the country looked to Japan, France and Germany for bids to build Australia's next fleet. Eventually, with Malcolm Turnbull in charge, France was given the contract to build the submarines in Adelaide.
That agreement is now dead in the water with the AUKUS deal, leading to a blistering rebuke from France which says it feels stabbed in the back.
Mapp explained the importance of the submarine project to Australia.
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"The reason they have always wanted it, or have always thought about it, is that their main submarine base is in Perth but their main patrol area is way up in the north-west Pacific around south-east Asia. That is thousands and thousands of miles," he said.
"Their current submarine spends so much time getting there, they spend not that much time on patrol before they have to go back again. That will all change with nuclear submarines."
Mapp said it is just the second time the United States has shared its nuclear technology, the first time being with Britain.
"The Americans and British, they have never had a nuclear accident with these submarines and they have been in operation for nearly 70 years, so that is an incredibly strong record," Mapp said.
New Zealand's absence from the deal has come under scrutiny from the National Party, which said New Zealand should have been part of discussions and tried to carve itself out of the nuclear aspect of the partnership.
Mapp, a former National MP himself, told The AM Show that we have our nuclear-free policy - which means nuclear-powered ships can't enter our waters - for reasons other than safety.
"It's an expression of New Zealand's independent foreign policy. We have been able to work with partners and allies anyway. That relationship has been strengthened over the last two decades. I saw it when I was the Minister of Defense as a key thing to strengthen the relationship of partners and allies."
He said AUKUS would have implications for New Zealand, with Australia likely to want Aotearoa to step up its approach to maritime security.
"Britain, Canada and Australia have all entered into a joint deal to replace their frigates with a British-design frigate. They are going to be built in Australia and Canada as well," Mapp said.
"New Zealand is not part of that and our ANZAC frigates are now nearly a quarter of a century old and, frankly, it is time the Government got on with starting the conversation with our partners, and actually with New Zealanders, about what we are going to replace the ANZAC frigates with and indeed how many. Two is frankly not enough. It is not an issue the Government can duck… the current Government is going to have to deal with that issue in the next two years."