Aukus a step too far?

Foreign policy has been in the headlines more than usual over the past fortnight. Prime Minister Christopher Luxon returns from a Southeast Asia tour and the world is anxious about the risk of Israel/Iran escalation.

Meanwhile, an overdue debate has begun about the Aukus alliance and New Zealand’s slide towards its traditional ally, the United States.

The stakes are high because it would appear New Zealand is abandoning what has been described as its Independent Foreign Policy.

As New Zealand Defence Minister Andrew Little said in May 2023 at an Asian security summit, small liberal democracies "do not get to avoid the real-life effects of geostrategic competition".

Mr Little said New Zealand had to be prepared with appropriate international relationships to protect its national security.

The benign post-Cold War years are long over.

Not only has Russia invaded a sovereign nation, Ukraine, but the rivalry between the United States and China has intensified.

With China helping Russia’s war effort, it would seem the world is dividing between China, Russia, Iran and North Korea and Nato, Japan, the Anglosphere, and India.

China has become more assertive in the Pacific and bullies its neighbours in the South China Sea. How does New Zealand respond?

Former prime minister Helen Clark has accused the government of a "lurch" from bipartisan settings that New Zealanders did not vote for.

She sees New Zealand as getting into bed with the United States and the Western bloc at the expense of its independent foreign policy.

The undemocratic shift back in policy was undoing New Zealand’s careful work of decades to "balance its economic interests, democratic values and nuclear-free independent foreign policy".

Moves towards joining Pillar 2 of Aukus, the grouping of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, have alarmed her and others.

Japan has all but joined. Canada and South Korea are interested.

Leaders (from left) Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden and...
Leaders (from left) Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak after an Aukus meeting in San Diego last year. PHOTO: REUTERS
Aukus Pillar 1 is based on nuclear-powered submarines and Pillar 2 on advanced technology.

The University of Otago’s Robert Patman has argued the priorities of Aukus are the containment of China and that New Zealand’s interests are much wider than that.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters said Miss Clark was out of order. He also refused to comment on Pillar 2, saying the matter was just being explored. The previous government was doing likewise, he said.

Miss Clark is right that these matters should be debated. She was wrong, however, about any "lurch".

As the Democracy Project’s geo-political analyst Geoffrey Miller, of Dunedin, has noted, a gradual realignment has been taking place. This is evidenced in Mr Little’s comments.

Labour, with the lesser need to face realities when in Opposition, is now backing away from what has been common ground on foreign policy.

At Labour’s Aukus forum on Thursday, Miss Clark again laid out the benefits of independence.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters, speaking on Aukus, has also said there are "powerful reasons for New Zealand engaging practically", while Prime Minister Christopher Luxon seems more cautious.

He said in Bangkok this week that the government was "open to exploring" joining Aukus and needed to understand more.

Mr Peters is expected to give a speech soon which might clarify the confusion.

Because New Zealand is already active in the Five Eyes Technical Co-operation Programme with the United States and others, it is claimed that joining Aukus Pillar 2 would achieve little more.

New Zealand’s increased alignment in recent years with the United States and its allies is prudent in an uncertain world.

But, as Miss Clark put it, New Zealand should not totally buy into the US framing of the region. New Zealand should be cautious about adding Aukus to its arsenal.

It should still endeavour to retain enough independence to remain a friend of China. And it should still be able to try to help reduce tensions rather than amplify them.