HMNZS Aotearoa and Canterbury tied up at Nukualofa wharf delivering aid to Tonga after the volcano eruption

This article is republished here. It was originally commissioned for some European publications.

While the British Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, and her Australian counterpart, Marise Payne, were busy last week in Sydney talking up the Foreign Secretary’s proposal for a “network of liberty” in the Indo Pacific, Tongans were dealing with the daily reality of life there.

Liberty didn’t have much to do with it.

Instead, the Tongans were dealing with survival after the Hunga-Hapaii underwater volcano eruptions had created a tsunami that demolished wharves and roads and cut international communications links and dumped ash across the country’s 170 islands, making water supplies undrinkable.

As part of the “liberty network”, Australia and Britain have joined the United States to form the AUKUS deal, which would have Australia build nuclear-powered submarines to confront China once the first one rolls out of the shipyard sometime in the 2040s.

Australia last September unceremoniously broke a $A90 billion deal with France’s Naval Group to build 12 diesel-electric attack submarines in favour of a new deal (AUKUS) involving the United Kingdom and the United States to build an unspecified number of nuclear-powered submarines.

AUKUS not only challenges the whole concept of a nuclear-free Pacific enshrined in the 1985 South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty but, more importantly, ignores the fundamental Pacific definition of security.

That was clearly set out in 2018 by the Pacific Island Forum, the region’s annual  multi-lateral summit, in the  Boe Declaration on regional security, which says that climate change “remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific.”

The declaration does acknowledge that the Pacific is an “increasingly complex regional security environment driven by multifaceted security challenges, and a dynamic geopolitical environment leading to an increasingly crowded and complex region.”

But this is a far cry from Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, which sees strategic competition, primarily between the United States and China, as the principal driver of strategic dynamics in our region.


“This competition is playing out across the Indo-Pacific and increasingly in our immediate region: the area ranging from the north-eastern Indian Ocean through maritime and mainland South East Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South-West Pacific,” it says.

It is this clash between Australia’s “great power” view of the region and Pacific countries own much closer to home fears about existential threats such as climate change, adverse weather events and other catastrophic natural calamities like the Tongan volcano which explains why there has been almost no endorsement by Pacific countries of Australia’s nuclear submarine move.

In August last year, Fiji Prime Minister Josaia V. (“Frank”) Bainimarama said, “as we envision the safe and peaceful world we want to leave for our children, a nuclear-free Blue Pacific must remain our legacy.”

Three weeks after he made that statement, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the nuclear submarine plan. Pacific leaders refrained from publicly attacking the proposal. It is not their style to directly attack other leaders, particularly of countries who are major aid donors to the region.

But non-Government organisations, academics, the churches and the media were not so shy.

Within days of the AUKUS announcement, a series of statements from Pacific leaders, community elders, and media organisations highlighted the persistence of the deep anti-nuclear sentiment that is a central element of Pacific regionalism.

“Shame Australia, Shame,” tweeted the general secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, Reverend James Bhagwan. “How can you call us your ‘vuvale’ when you know your ‘family’ stands for a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific?”

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Damukana Sogavare told the UN General Assembly that his nation “would like to keep our region nuclear-free and put the region’s nuclear legacy behind us… We do not support any form of militarisation in our region that could threaten regional and international peace and stability.”

Recalling British and US nuclear testing on Christmas Island, Kiribati president Taneti Maamau highlighted the trauma of i-Kiribati nuclear survivors: “With anything to do with nuclear, we thought it would be a courtesy to raise it, to discuss it with your neighbours… As small island states,” he added, “we thought we were part of the solution… we are in the Pacific family. We should be consulted.”

Newspapers like the Samoa Observer editorialised against Australia’s plans. “Signing up to a military pact behind the closet and then declaring we in the region will benefit from the peace and stability it would bring is not how friends treat each other,” it said.

“Why has Australia become a party to a military pact that could now see conflict return to our peaceful islands some 76 years after the end of World War Two?

“We are not interested in your wars and the political ideologies that you continue to flout in your quest for global domination.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was the first leader briefed by Morrison about the deal, and she immediately made it clear New Zealand had no interest in joining in and that furthermore, the nuclear-powered submarines would be barred from New Zealand ports under the country’s 1987 nuclear-free legislation.

“New Zealand is first and foremost a nation of the Pacific, and we view foreign policy developments through the lens of what is in the best interest of the region,” she said.

“We welcome the increased engagement of the UK and US in the region and reiterate our collective objective needs to be the delivery of peace and stability and the preservation of the international rules-based system.

“New Zealand’s position in relation to the prohibition of nuclear-powered vessels in our waters remains unchanged.”

The nuclear-free issue will surface at next month’s Pacific Forum summit in Fiji, where members are expected to voice objections to Japan’s plans to dump into the Pacific Ocean over a million tonnes of treated water from the Fukushima reactor, which suffered a meltdown in 2011.

Forum Secretary General Henry Puna, after meeting with the Japanese Government and nuclear industry officials last September, reiterated the region’s “unequivocal need for information as being key to safeguard the Blue Pacific as a nuclear-free zone.”

Australia National University Associate Professor and veteran Pacific observer, Greg Fry, writing last November, argued that the immediate danger to the “Pacific Blue” nuclear-free concept came not from the submarines themselves but from the AUKUS agreement itself.

“While the public commentary within Australia, and the Pacific response to AUKUS, have focused on the Australian acquisition of nuclear submarines between 2040 and 2060, the more worrying threat to a nuclear-free Pacific in the next two decades comes from the fundamental shift in Australian–American defence relations, announced as an accompaniment to AUKUS,” he said.

“The Australia–US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) joint statement, issued in the same week as the AUKUS announcement, included an agreement that Australia will establish “a combined logistics, sustainment, and maintenance enterprise to support high-end warfighting and combined military operations in the region.”

All of this adds up to a distancing taking place between Australia and the island members of the Forum.

New Zealand has chosen to move closer to those islands with a Defence strategy unveiled last December, which in the words of Defence Minister Peeni Henare, begins with an understanding that the country is “in and of the Pacific.”

Unveiling the country’s latest Defence Capability Plan in 2019, then Defence Minister Ron Mark said: “At its heart, this new Capability Plan is a humanitarian plan. It readies New Zealand to lead in the assistance of our neighbours and to contribute to the security of our friends in the Pacific.”

That has been evident this week in Tonga, where the New Zealand Navy’s new Aotearoa sustainment vessel is tied up at the wharf in Nukualofa with its desalination plant producing 100,000 litres of water a day.

An understanding that that is what the “Blue Pacific” really needs is now becoming a growing difference between New Zealand and Australia with its nuclear submarines.