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“Exercise Caution: Reasons Why New Zealand Should Be Cautious in Joining the AUKUS Security Pact”


As the strategic rivalry between the United States and China intensifies, the invitation to discuss Participation in the AUKUS Security Agreement presents New Zealand with a potentially important decision: how best to safeguard its own strategic interests and values ​​in the Indo-Pacific region.

AUKUS is the Agreement for 2021 between Australia, the UK and the US for the “exchange of naval nuclear propulsion information”. It has been presented as the basis for an enhanced security partnership coupled with a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and a rules-based international order.

Although it does not state this explicitly, the pact is in response to the perceived threat of China’s increasing assertiveness in the region. The Chinese government has condemned AUKUS as reflecting a “Cold War mentality”, where a “path of error and danger”; it threatens both “regional peace” and the “international nuclear non-proliferation regime”.

As its first major initiative, Australia will purchase at least three U.S. Virginia-class nuclear submarines by the early 2030s. By the mid-2050s, it will receive five or more new SSN-AUKUS submarines that combine US technology with British design. The cost of Australia’s nuclear submarine program will exceed A$268 billion over the next 30 years.

AUKUS is also considering information sharing in advanced defense technologies, including artificial intelligence, quantum capabilities, and cybersecurity. This is where New Zealand has shown some interest on a so-called “pillar two” non-nuclear level.

Rational political decision-making involves choosing the best option from available alternatives about which there is a degree of uncertainty. So the question is: what is the most rational decision for New Zealand?

Under the AUKUS agreement, Australia will purchase US-made Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines.

The argument for AUKUS

The claim that a new China-US Cold War is underway is shaped by the belief that an emerging great power is almost inevitably trying to displace the US as the dominant world power.

This happens at a time when important parts of international law are in free fall, globalization threatens to stall and the UN Security Council is increasingly unable to solve critical problems.

Read more: As Australia signs up for nuclear submarines, NZ faces tough decisions on AUKUS alliance

A growing arms race and points of extreme geopolitical tension, from North Korea to Taiwan, underscore the need for an arrangement like AUKUS to balance like-minded partners to ensure greater stability.

In this climate, the argument goes, New Zealand’s preferred option to hedge between the superpowers has come under pressure. As a relatively small nation, it must now choose which side to support.

Given New Zealand’s history, liberal democratic values ​​and existing security ties with AUKUS partners, it makes sense for Wellington to join the agreement’s long-term strategy to deter and contain China’s growing military might .

Failure to do so risks denying New Zealand access to emerging state-of-the-art defense technologies.

The argument against AUKUS

The counter argument is that the Cold War analogy is imprecise. The increasingly interconnected post-Cold War era is fundamentally different from the period between 1947 and 1989, with its rival global economic systems and competing but similar alliance systems.

The binary assumption that the fate of the Indo-Pacific will be largely determined by the outcome of the US-China rivalry – and by the ability of the US and its closest allies to counterbalance Chinese ambitions in the vast Indo-Pacific -Pacific region – is questionable.

Regional states such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, and EU states such as France and Germany remain concerned about China’s assertive diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific. But they seem to have little faith that AUKUS, a security arrangement involving three English-speaking states, is capable of a serious response in a region inhabited by billions of people.

Read more: Paul Keating lashes out at Albanian government over AUKUS, calling it Labor’s biggest failure since World War I

Moreover, while China’s global ambitions are real, they should not be overhyped. The country’s impressive rise to superpower status is based on full participation in the capitalist global economy and outstanding trading performance. This has led to a high degree of economic interdependence between China and its trading partners.

In addition, AUKUS will not be able to do much in the short term to counter China’s designs on Taiwan. Despite assurances from the defense minister, New Zealand’s participation would create real uncertainty about its foreign policy independence and commitment to non-nuclear security in a region where many states have criticized AUKUS for fueling nuclear proliferation.

Finally, the assumption that AUKUS is the only route to new military technologies overlooks Wellington’s already excellent bilateral ties with Australia and the US, its involvement in the Five Eyes partnership and its deeper ties with NATO (including the planned visit to this year’s NATO summit).

Read more: Finland, NATO and the evolving new world order – what small nations know

A plea for caution

Overall, we believe the evidence suggests that New Zealand’s interests and values ​​are best protected by maintaining a prudent approach to AUKUS.

We accept many New Zealand shares with Australia, the UK and the US, and should not be “neutral” to authoritarian pressure from China. We also agree that the New Zealand military should be fit for purpose.

However, it must be recognized that New Zealand has a worldview of its own, one that is committed to defending an international rules-based order and deepening it (through measures such as UN Security Council reform) to enhance security of all nations.

While it is in principle correct to examine talks about AUKUS, New Zealand should be under no illusions about the huge implications such involvement would have for its vision of a fairer, safer and nuclear-weapon-free world.

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