Former Prime Minister Helen Clark at the Forum

Foreign Minister Winston Peters is understood to be planning a major speech within the next fortnight to clear up the confusion over whether or not New Zealand might join the AUKUS submarine project.

So far, there have been conflicting signals from the Government.

RNZ reported the Prime Minister yesterday in Bangkok as saying only that the Government was open to exploring what entry into Pillar Two of AUKUS might involve.

“We’ll work our way through that. All we’re saying at this point is exactly what the previous Government said. We’re open to exploring it, and we need to understand it,” he said.

That was a step back from the communique issued last Friday after Peters’ talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“We share the view that arrangements such as the Quad, AUKUS, and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity contribute to peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and see powerful reasons for New Zealand engaging practically with them, as and when all parties deem it appropriate,” it said.

There is a difference between Peters’ “powerful reasons for New Zealand engaging practically” and the Prime Minister’s “we’re open to exploring it, we need to understand it.”

It is that gap that the speech will need to address.

At this stage, beyond knowing that Pillar Two of AUKUS covers the non-nuclear high-tech that will go with the submarines, no one in Wellington, on or off the record, seems able to spell out in any detail what it might involve.

Speaking at Labour’s AUKUS Forum yesterday, the former Australian Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, said Pillar Two was “pure bullshit, fragrant, methane-wrapped bullshit.”

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The Financial Times reported on April 12 that Pillar Two involved the development of new strategic technologies in fields such as drone warfare, hypersonics, electronic warfare and artificial intelligence. 

There would be a question about whether New Zealand could add anything in those fields.

And there are questions about whether Pillar Two would actually add anything to existing Defence scientific agreements.

New Zealand is already an active participant in the Five Eyes Technical Co-operation Programme, which gives it access to the work of over 1,000 defence scientists in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.

For New Zealand, that has included a growing involvement with US defence scientists on space technology, which might be particularly valuable to New Zealand in areas like ocean surveillance across the Pacific.

Only last month, a New Zealand Defence (NZDF) payload was attached to a research satellite developed by the US Naval Postgraduate School. The satellite was launched on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket mission from Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia.

A team of scientists from the NZDF’s Defence Science & Technology (DST) is monitoring and interacting with the satellite via the Whangaparaoa Ground Station, north of Auckland.

But the Prime Minister’s caution and the fact that a formal announcement is being planned points to a debate within the coalition about what to do.

There will be pressure on Luxon not to do anything which might damage New Zealand’s relationship with China, whereas both ACT and NZ First have more room to move.

POLITIK Former Prime Minister Helen Clark speaking with Chinese diplomats at the AUKUS Forum

Meanwhile, the former Prime Minister, Helen Clark, is running what amounts to a campaign to defend the independent foreign policy and to oppose any involvement with AUKUS.

Yesterday, she was at Parliament as one of the keynote speakers at a Labour Party Forum that convened to discuss AUKUS.

She said that any United States security guarantees to New Zealand under the ANZUS Treaty had ended “then and there” in Manila in June 1985 when then-US Secretary of State George Schultz said, “’we part company as friends, but we part company as far as the alliance is concerned.”

That left New Zealand on its own, linked only to Australia through the Canberra Pact and the remnants of ANZUS and thus the development of “the independent foreign policy .”

“The Independent foreign policy has seen New Zealand positioned as a small liberal democracy which makes up its own mind on the issues,” Clark said.

“Of course, that has not ruled out engagement militarily offshore.

“Decisions have been made case by case, and they have not flowed from alliance membership and the expectations which are always associated with such partnerships.”

Both the United States and Australia describe AUKUS as a “security alliance”.

That could in itself restrict just how deeply involved New Zealand might become.

POLITIK Former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr with Labour Leader Chris Hipkins at the AUKUS Forum

Clark was critical of what she said was slippage away from the independent foreign policy.

“If I think back to my time as Prime Minister, we never conceded the existence of the Five Eyes agreement,” she said.

“Well, fast forward to now. Statements are put out by finance ministers. It seems to somehow define what we speak on and what we don’t on so many occasions. That’s the worry.

Officialdom quickly embraced the Indo-Pacific phraseology, but it goes without saying that New Zealand doesn’t have an Indian Ocean frontage.

“We’ve always thought of ourselves as an Asia Pacific and Pacific Rim country, and the reframing clearly has a geopolitical significance.”

And then she directed a barb at former Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern over the joint statement that followed her meeting with President Joe Biden in the White House in 2022.

“It noted, quote, a shared commitment among New Zealand and AUKUS partners to the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region,” she said.

“I noted at the time that the statement did not appear to have had close scrutiny by New Zealand.

“It’s New Zealand buying into the US framing of the region, and also in saying that AUKUS was positive for the region when the purpose, as has been come very, very clear, is to amplify a nuclear submarine presence in the region.”

She was also critical of the New Zealand’s Defence Policy and Security Strategy issued by the Hipkins government in August last year.

Cark said the strategy noted “in a somewhat breathless fashion” that China was growing and modernizing its military and increasingly able to project military and paramilitary force beyond its immediate region.

“Hello. China is a major power in our region. The US is a major power in our region,” she said.

“Our job, if we’re maintaining an independent foreign policy, is to navigate both relationships and not act in ways which support polarization and support a view that one side is driving tensions.”

The former Premier of New South Wales and Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr, a well-known student of American politics, said the US Republican Party, under Presidents going back to Eisenhower, focused on alliance diplomacy and active internationalism.

A focus on primacy had now replaced that. And he saw the same risk in China.

“If a prevailing power thinks with paranoia, or at least anxiety, that everything is about our primacy, then it’s a very dangerous situation because anything that happens in the world could be interpreted as a threat to primacy,” he said.

“If China allows paranoia and wolf warrior diplomacy to govern its behaviour,  it can see everything as an attempt to contain it.”

POLITIK Former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr

Carr argued that AUKUS  would ratchet up the dangers he was talking about.

Instead, Australia and New Zealand should attempt to ease the US-China confrontation in the region.

“Friends of the United States and friends of China should begin, at first behind closed doors, to talk about winding back the tensions, about less adversarial behaviour, planting with both sides the idea that there is more to be gained by expanding the areas of co-operation, not diminishing them,” he said.

“Australia and New Zealand will be listened to by both sides because the relationship with Australia and New Zealand is very important in Beijing and in Washington.”

At the heart of the AUKUS debate in New Zealand is the issue of what sort of relationship New Zealand should have with the United States.

The independent foreign policy developed as a necessity after the ANZUS  breakdown, but both Clark and Carr argue that it allows New Zealand to play a significant role in East Asia.

Interestingly, the outgoing Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, seemed to point out this in a subtle answer at his joint press conference with Luxon in Singapore on Monday.

“We are what is called a major security co-operation partner of the US,” he said.

This is a technical term. We are the only one of its kind in the world. That means we do a lot of security co-operation with the US — security in terms of counterterrorism, for example anti-extremism, but also in terms of defence co-operation, in terms of defence purchases, training.

“But we are co-operation partners, not treaty partners, not treaty allies. And there is a fundamental difference.

“Therefore, we can cooperate with them in many different ways, but push comes to shove, there is no treaty obligation — if America is attacked, we go to America’s defence; if we are attacked, America comes to our defence.

“That is not where we are, that is not where we stand, and I think where we stand is the right place for Singapore to be.

“New Zealand is in a slightly different position, and you will no doubt be assessing how, in the light of the changes in the strategic environment, you want to adjust and improve that position, but that is really for New Zealand.”

Singapore has been able to leverage that independence to become one of the most influential voices in East Asia, while Australia is about to become one of the most powerful.

Those are the choices, influence or power that are open now to New Zealand.