Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s reaction yesterday to the Australia-United Kingdom – United States Security Alliance subtly underlined how New Zealand sees the region differently from Australia.
“Our lens will always be from that of a Pacific nation,” she said, reacting to Australia’s announcement of its new security partnership, AUKUS, with the UK and the US.
The partnership’s first project will have Australia build a fleet of nuclear submarines using top-secret American and British technology.
Details of how many and the budget have yet to be agreed, but Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he hoped the first sub would be in the water by 2040.
But this ramping up of Australia’s military capability in the Indo-Pacific region contrasts markedly with how Ardern sees the region.
“The Pacific itself is an increasingly contested region,” she told the Institute of International Affairs conference in July.
“And so, to understand that complexity and respond to it, we also see the Indo-Pacific as central to our interests.
“We have embraced the concept of an Indo-Pacific as the wider home for New Zealand, locating Aotearoa in a larger ecosystem of nations and regions that includes East Asia, the Pacific, the Indian sub-continent and the Pacific Rim.”
At her post-Cabinet press conference yesterday, she elaborated on that theme.
“We have an independent foreign policy, and we will take our own view on foreign policy issues,” she said.
“We will continue to make a contribution. (to the Pacific)
“But our lens is very much peace, stability and a rules-based order. And that will always be the case.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison sees the region differently.
In his formal statement announcing its creation, he said security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region had grown significantly.
“Military modernisation is occurring at an unprecedented rate, and capabilities are rapidly advancing and their reach expanding,” he said.
More generally, US President Biden has been talking about the need to upgrade the US’s military alliances.
On Wednesday, he said he wanted to “invest in our greatest source of strength, our alliances” and “to update them to better face the threats of today and tomorrow”.
The Australian Strategic Policies’ Institute (ASPI) daily defence newsletter “The Strategist” yesterday reported a background briefing by White House officials on the decision to set up AUKUS and build submarines.
“This allows Australia to play at a much higher level and to augment American capabilities that will be similar, and this is about maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.,” the report said.
Peter Jennings, executive director of (ASPI), told the ABC the submarine decision was a response to China’s takeover of the South China Sea, aggressive bullying of Australia and intimidation of Japan and Taiwan.
“We should call the first submarine in this new category the ‘Xi Jinping,’ because no person is more responsible for Australia going down this track than the current leader of the Chinese Communist Party,” Jennings told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
And that is the difference between Australia and New Zealand.
Like the White House officials, New Zealand also wants “peace and stability”, but it wants it framed within a rules-based international order. In contrast, the officials said the new architecture was really about deepening cooperation on a range of defence capabilities for the 21st century.
Whether that policy towards the Pacific is a bipartisan one in New Zealand is unclear.
The National Party’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee, wanted to know yesterday why New Zealand had not been included in the talks to set up AUKUS.
“Notwithstanding our anti-nuclear position, which we haven’t changed, the question the Government needs to answer first and foremost is were we consulted or at the table to discuss with a group of countries that we’ve considered likeminded for quite some time,” he said.
The Strategist said the establishment of the partnership took months of high-level negotiations carried out in secrecy.
The Sydney Morning Herald has reported that the idea originated with Morrison and was developed over 18 months of top-secret studies and negotiations by Australian Defence officials until Morrison put it to President Biden at the June G& meeting in Britain.
Morrison said Ardern was the first foreign leader he called to explain the new alliance. He later called the leaders of Japan and India. The two countries, along with the United States and Australia, form the Quad security dialogue.
“She was my first call because of the strength of our relationship and the relationship between our countries,” Morrison said. “All in the region will benefit from the peace and the stability and security that this partnership will add to our region.”
Apart from Ardern’s reluctance to support the militarisation of the Pacific, two other factors prohibited New Zealand’s participation.
A nuclear submarine costs around $NZ7 billion; our annual defence budget is around $5 billion.
President Biden said yesterday that the Australian subs would not carry nuclear weapons.
But they would still be nuclear powered and as such, barred from New Zealand ports.
“They couldn’t come into our internal waters,” Ardern said.
“Our legislation means that nothing that is wholly or fully powered, no vessel that is wholly or fully, partially or fully powered by nuclear energy is able to enter into our internal waters.
“So that is, in fact, a position that has been held across parties for a long period of time.”
National thought about changing it in 1992 and Commissioned an inquiry headed by a Judge and including three scientists which concluded that nuclear vessels in New Zealand ports would be safe.
And The Committee found a serious lack of understanding and knowledge, and much misinformation, in the minds of the public concerning safety and technical issues related to nuclear-powered vessels.
But despite this, the Bolger National Government was not willing to change the nuclear-free legislation.
They judged the political risk as too high, and if anything, that risk has probably only gone up since then.
But there will be questions now about where the AUKUS partnership leaves New Zealand’s relationship with Australia.
If New Zealand Labour had hoped that the Australian Opposition Labour party might have opposed the partnership, they would be disappointed.
In a joint statement, Australian Labor Leader Anthony Albanese and the party’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Senator Penny Wong, have both endorsed Morrison’s agreement.
However, there was strident criticism from former Australian Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating.
He said the partnership would amount to a lock-in of Australian military equipment and thereby forces, with those of the United States “with only one underlying objective: the ability to act collectively in any military engagement by the United States against China.”
“This arrangement would witness a further dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty, as material dependency on the United States robbed Australia of any freedom of choice in any engagement Australia may deem appropriate,” he said.
And in a typically Keating .postcript, he added: “240 years after we departed from Britain, we are back there with Boris Johnson, trying to find our security in Asia through London. Such is the continual failure of the Liberal party to have any faith in Australia’s capacity, but more particularly, the rights to its own independence and freedom of action.”
And Australia was also copping a tirade of abuse from France because the decision to build the nuclear submarines meant the cancellation of a $A90 billion contract to build French-designed diesel-electric submarines in Australia.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denounced Australia’s decision as a “stab in the back.”
“We had established a relationship of trust with Australia; this trust has been betrayed,” Le Drian told France Info radio.
French media, like Le Monde and Liberation made much of the fact that New Zealand had not been invited to take part in the partnership and that Ardern had said the subs would not be able to enter New Zealand ports.
China has (predictably) criticised the partnership, and its Foreign Ministry spokesman said last night it was monitoring the situation closely.
But there seemed to be a feeling in Wellington that the trans-Tasman relationship – or the relationship with the US, for that matter — was unlikely to be set back by the partnership.
Instead, there was some agreement with what a political writer for the Melbourne “Age”, Tony Wright, suggested in a column yesterday that domestic politics played a role in Morrison’s decision to join the partnership.
The Australian Prime Minister must call an election before June next year. Wright said Australia might have abandoned a 20-year-long war in Afghanistan but should stand by for a khaki-shaded election.
“It (AUKUS) elevates Scott Morrison from harried, strife-beset leader looking increasingly like a potential loser, to the position of Prime Minister taking charge of his nation’s defence in an emerging regional Cold War,” wrote Wright.
Foreign affairs pundits will be pouring over the details of this partnership for months, possibly years. But the ANZAC relationship has always been more myth than reality, and as such, it is unlikely to be destabilised by this.