OPINION: When the grand new military alliance was announced between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States – dubbed Aukus – one name was missing its contribution to the acronym: New Zealand.
The real question is why the deal is not called NZAukus. In other words, why has New Zealand been left out in the cold on this new military hardware and defence co-operation deal. At its most basic, the answer is: nuclear. New Zealand has an anti-nuclear policy and, under the current Government, that will certainly not be revisited. Indeed, all parties in Parliament support this approach.
At a deeper and more profound level, it is about cost and what military commitments New Zealand wishes to make. The fact is that New Zealand does not expect, nor aspires, to play in the defence big leagues.
Instead, our approach since the 1980s has been about comparative advantage. We pick and choose what we contribute with what we can afford, and what can be helpful in joint operations with other countries.
One of the important things done by the first Ardern Government, at the behest of NZ First, was to ramp up defence spending to counter growing perception in Canberra and Washington that New Zealand was, in effect, a defence bludger. That included buying some new P8 Poseidon and Hercules aircraft.
Since Peeni Henare took over the defence portfolio from NZ First’s Ron Mark, he has committed to retaining the funding for Mark’s Defence Capability Plan, although it appears the fiscal crunch created by Covid means some of that spending will be pushed out.
Let there be no mistake: New Zealand does enjoy the implicit protection of being aligned to the liberal democratic West. That means the US. Constant talk of New Zealand’s “independent” foreign policy has always been code for not operating at the behest of Washington.
- 'No concern' around NZ Navy ships in South China Sea - Henare
- AUKUS Defence Pact: New Zealand's exclusion reflects our 'friend, not ally' status with the US
- AUKUS: Jacinda Ardern welcomes United Kingdom, United States engagement in Pacific, says NZ nuclear stance 'unchanged'
- Australia has learnt about China the hard way. When will NZ wise up?
That has partly been forced. New Zealand was officially downgraded from “ally” to “friend” in the 1980s, and then effectively ended its involvement in Anzus. There hasn’t been any meaningful involvement in military hardware alliances since.
The other thing to recognise about the Aukus deal is the domestic drivers at play in each of three signing nations.
The overriding international context is the emergence of a common threat: China. But each of the three players have had domestic political logic propelling the deal.
For the UK, this is partly about reaffirming and forming new relationships in its new post-Brexit world. For US President Joe Biden, it’s about rebuilding America’s traditional alliances and re-establishing trust in the US after the disastrous Trump years when an America First posture viewed other members of the West as free riders and moochers who lectured the US on morals while relying on its military might (to be fair, Trump did have a point)
For Scott Morrison in Australia, the deal ties Australia much more closely to the US and is a way out of the troubled deal with French submarine maker Naval Group, formerly DCNS. The Australian sub programme, announced in 2016, was meant to lead to $50 billion worth of submarines delivered next decade. But delays and costs blowouts mean the figure is likely to be closer to $270b.
Considering that New Zealand’s $5b defence boost over the past few years is barely more than the $4b the Australians have now spent on subs that will never be made shows just what a different league the Australians are playing in. The appropriation for the Defence Force here for 2021-22 was $4.2b.
In New Zealand, there have been no domestic drivers to get involved in a deal like this. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern used a speech earlier in the year to affirm New Zealand’s commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. That’s code for the democratic world against China in our region. It convinced the more hawkish Australians that we weren’t China doves after all, but there is no domestic political logic driving any such move.
- Chance of war between China and West 'low' but still a risks of 'incidents' - former New Zealand Defence Minister
- We haven't been sidelined by AUKUS defence pact
- New Zealand a winner in AUKUS agreement, but risks remain - experts
- Australia planning nuclear submarines, with US and British help
Ardern was informed of the Aukus deal about 5pm on Wednesday. On Thursday, she told media it was no surprise that New Zealand wasn’t invited to join, due to the centrepiece of the deal revolving around nuclear subs.
But while it won’t affect New Zealand that much right now, it could in the long run. That in turn raises the strategic question of whether the ban on nuclear-powered (not armed) vessels should be allowed here. It is one thing to continue a ban on the Americans; it is another to effectively institute one on our closest ally.
In other words, there has been a certain puritanism about New Zealand’s nuclear stance that may have to be revisited in the new era of sharper geo-strategic competition.
New Zealand’s anti-nuclear posture has become a central part of a modern foundational myth about this land: that we stood up to the Americans and rejected the great threat to humanity. New Zealand’s stance was also about pushing back against an imperial power in the region: France, which for three decades used the Pacific as a place to test its nuclear weapons. There were very good reasons for doing all of it, and it clearly helped to shape the nation New Zealand has become.
But the tension at the heart of the 1980s nuclear politics – between ties to the US and the desire for an anti-nuclear policy – has not gone away; it has just been on ice for about 30 years since the fall of Soviet communism. Former prime minister David Lange himself even tried to hammer out some sort of deal that distinguished between nuclear-propelled and armed vessels – to no avail.
And before we get too high and mighty it is also worth remembering that New Zealand is not averse to using, for example, medical isotopes created in Australia. We just don’t want to do it here.
Above all else, the Aukus deal shows where our main friends see threats to peace and security coming from. New Zealand will have to prove that our comparative advantage approach also means pulling our weight and being seen to do so.
Alliances are the oldest sort of security. They still matter.