Our government officials are weighing up whether New Zealand should be involved in AUKUS — the nuclear submarine military pact between Australia, the UK and the US. It’s one of a range of agreements that would open the door to greater military activity in the Pacific.
For New Zealand, any role in AUKUS will likely be determined by a new government, after the October election.
But, despite disquiet in the region about growing militarisation, we’ve had very little information from our major parties about what they believe New Zealand’s position on AUKUS should be, and why. And there are worrying signs that our politicians aren’t up to speed on what’s at stake if we join the AUKUS alliance.
Here, Dr Marco de Jong looks at that lack of detail, and why we should all be asking for more information. He’s talking to Teuila Fuatai.
In May this year, we heard Andrew Little, the Minister of Defence, signal New Zealand’s interest in AUKUS, the submarine military pact between Australia, the UK and the US. He framed it, though, as “principally, a technology-transfer agreement”.
He was on Newshub’s The Nation, and he was asked for specific details about what the agreement would mean for New Zealand. Little outlined Australia’s desire for nuclear-powered submarines that were “conventionally-armed” (which AUKUS has facilitated) before talking about how the three AUKUS nations were developing technology relevant to “our ability to defend our countries”. This included things like cyber-security, AI, and quantum computing — advances in technology that New Zealand might be interested in, he said.
And with that non-threatening description, he made AUKUS sound like a science project. One that would supposedly benefit New Zealand by helping us stay safe.
But that’s a fundamental misrepresentation.
AUKUS is a nuclear alliance designed to contain China and uphold US primacy in the Pacific. It’s a new arms race for next-generation warfighting capabilities. Any offer to join must be seen through that fundamental truth.
In New Zealand, we have an independent, Pacific-led, and nuclear-free foreign policy. Our government has been at pains to explain that this would still stand. That we would be free to opt out of a hypothetical future war. That we are still committed to Pacific priorities. That any involvement wouldn’t violate New Zealand’s domestic anti-nuclear legislation, nor its commitment to the Treaty of Rarotonga, which sets up a nuclear-free zone in the South Pacific. And, to give officials time to weigh all this up, they’re considering involvement in AUKUS Pillar Two “on a non-commitment basis”.
Publicly, we’ve had few substantive details about what Pillar Two involves because of the secrecy surrounding the alliance. The information we have has been pieced together from a handful of heavily redacted documents released under the Official Information Act, publicly available strategic documents, local and overseas news reports, and statements from leaders.
That hasn’t been an easy process, but it’s instrumental in understanding the bigger picture and why there’s serious support for New Zealand’s participation in AUKUS from officials in the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and our two spy agencies.
First, all of these agencies believe our current armed forces aren’t fit for purpose. Strategic documents outlinehow New Zealand no longer operates in a “benign” strategic environment, and highlights issues in the region around climate security and geostrategic competition. They make the case that we should transition from being a dual-purpose, civilian-use and low-technology armed force, to a high-tech, interoperable and combat-ready force. Apparently, this means maintaining a standing army that’s able to be deployed outside of the immediate region.
For a public used to seeing our armed forces undertaking maritime surveillance, fisheries patrols, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief through our territorial waters and the Pacific, multimillion-dollar investments in drone warfare or hypersonic missiles will be a big change. Regardless of any involvement in AUKUS, the intended takeaway message has been that transitioning our armed forces will better equip us to deal with emerging threats.
Second, these agencies believe New Zealand should more closely align itself with the traditional western allies of the US, Australia, and the UK, and with their vision for the Pacific.
Two joint briefing documents from the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, designed to provide an overview on the implications of AUKUS for New Zealand, have been particularly helpful in gauging the regional picture that officials are presenting to their respective ministers.
The documents, released under the Official Information Act with significant redactions, talk about New Zealand being a Pacific nation which sees threats to our security through a Pacific lens. If we follow the lead of the Pacific Islands Forum, this means adopting a “family first” approach to security that prioritises climate action, and working through the Pacific Islands Forum.
At the same time, however, the documents emphasise that Australia “is part of the Pacific family” and that New Zealand should continue to work closely with Australia. No specific mention is made of any other Pacific countries besides Australia, at least outside of redactions. Nor is there mention of the monumental shift we’ve seen in Australia’s foreign policy. There is no reference to Australia’s role in the US’s nuclear-warfighting strategy, and its plans to have nuclear-armed B-52 bombers on rotation in the Northern Territory, as well as nuclear submarines stationed at various ports on the Australian mainland.
The omission of details about Australia’s foreign policy direction by Defence and Foreign Affairs officials is a deliberate downplaying or dismissal of its impact in the region. I’ve drawn on these documents, and Andrew Little’s May interview, as examples of different parts of the puzzle we’re piecing together around AUKUS. They show concerning biases on the part of Defence and Foreign Affairs’ officials. They acknowledge we’re a Pacific nation, but they aren’t concerned with Pacific priorities and would rather play a bit role in the geostrategic manoeuvres of Australia and other external players.
The priority for New Zealand, as our officials see it, is signalling alignment with Australia without prejudicing our trading relationship with China. It’s a view rooted in one key assumption, which is that picking a side between the US and China is inevitable. Specifically, like Australia, they think we should be on the side of the US.
I can’t say strongly enough how damaging that first assumption is. For New Zealand, and other Pacific nations, reducing our options to choosing sides between two imperial nations devalues our sovereignty and place as peoples of the Pacific. In that worldview, there is simply no room for the welfare of Pacific nations, Pacific people, and our ocean, because it focuses entirely on spheres of influence controlled by the US and China. It’s a concerning role to be playing for New Zealand as a “Pacific nation”. Because, without a doubt, AUKUS has already destabilised Pacific regional politics, and fundamentally changed bilateral engagement in the region.
We should note that Pacific leaders are divided on the issue of AUKUS. It’s one of many issues, like deep-sea mining, sub-regional leadership of the Forum and the Fukushima waste discharge, that are threatening unity.
There are some supporters, like Fiji’s Sitiveni Rabuka, who see the opportunity for increased collaboration between Fiji and Australia’s militaries. And then there are outspoken opponents of AUKUS, like Manasseh Sogovare of the Solomon Islands, and Simon Kofe, the Foreign Minister of Tuvalu, who’ve expressed concerns with its potential to undermine the Treaty of Rarotonga and its implications for nuclear non-proliferation and climate action.
The Vanuatu government of Ishmael Kalsakau was also just brought down by its signing of a secretive security cooperation agreement with Australia. There’s also the situation in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, where there’s been large civil society opposition to bilateral security agreements.
It’s clear that gaining support for AUKUS (and its need for uninhibited access to Pacific territory) has led nations like the US and Australia to abandon any pretence of good governance. Instead of respecting the principle of “friends to all, enemies to none” on China, and opposition to nuclear colonialism in the Pacific, there’ve been attempts to bully and buy off Pacific leaders. This is mirrored by declining support for long-held Pacific priorities like climate change, visa-free mobility, or self-determination in Kanaky or West Papua.
For New Zealand, the establishment of a high-tech, AUKUS interoperable military would likely come at the expense of climate action and overseas development assistance. This has been the case in Australia, where a vast majority of their aid is now earmarked for military purposes. In a region where international failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has meant increasingly severe storms and coastal inundation, ever more expensive guns will not help. We, at least, should be honest about our ability to meet regional needs with force.
Moreover, I think we should be quite sceptical of what we’re being sold about AUKUS and our current foreign policy direction — which is hardly independent or Pacific-led. But we should also question the notion of a nuclear-free New Zealand under AUKUS.
So far, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has emphasised that any involvement in AUKUS Pillar Two would be “non-nuclear”. However, MFAT officials have also refused to make any distinction between nuclear and conventional interoperability under the agreement.
It’s clear that under AUKUS Pillar Two, the intention is to form a “single capability”, a completely integrated, AI-powered system, which in all likelihood will eventually be nuclearised. New Zealand’s involvement could mean our drones, frigates, and submarine-fighting Poseidon planes all feed information into that capability, which would be connected to US and Australian predator drones or missiles systems equipped with smart warheads. No one has ruled out New Zealand feeding information to nuclear weapons systems.
So, it’s an arrangement that might technically uphold our nuclear-free legislation, but it sure lays the groundwork for far greater militarisation and the ongoing nuclearisation of the region. The constant spotlighting of the non-nuclear aspect of AUKUS Pillar Two by MFAT officials is pretty disingenuous when we consider what is actually happening in the region.
I think we also need to be honest about the motivations of the officials drawing up the briefing and advice papers for our elected decision-makers. So far, all the language and public communication around AUKUS indicates our non-elected officials have a clear bias towards what was once known as the western alliance, and a strong desire for New Zealand to actively participate in the US Indo-Pacific plan.
We ought to remember that alongside our one formal ally, Australia, we are a member of the Pacific Islands Forum. Why are we talking about AUKUS Pillar Two when we have signed on to regional security statements like the Boe and Biketawa Declarations that run counter to it?
The anti-Pacific or pro-US bias is a deeply-entrenched way of thinking among officials in the Ministry of Defence, MFAT, and in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. The language they use blurs the lines of what is actually at stake for the government and diminishes the independence of our foreign policy.
Nicky Hager recently recounted how those attitudes manifested when he was part of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s. He told the story in an address he gave this month for the Michael King memorial lecture at the University of Otago.
It was January 1985, and the Lange government was weighing up a request from the US for one of its naval ships to visit. At the time, the US wanted to find a loophole in our nuclear-free stance to enable access of nuclear vessels to our ports. Two days before cabinet was due to decide on the US request, Hager received a call from then-Defence minister Frank O’Flynn. O’Flynn, who’d never met Hager, asked him whether he’d review advice from officials, including top secret documents from the Ministry of Defence and our intelligence bureau, regarding the US request.
“It was exactly what we’d feared,” Hager said of the briefing papers which he read in O’Flynn’s home in Wellington.
“Our officials made no mention of the step-by-step plan to undermine the ban with increasingly blatant nuclear-armed ships. Nor was there mention that the US Secretary of State had said: ‘Over time, you would have to assume some of our vessels would be carrying nuclear arms.’ There was actually no discussion at all of pros and cons. There was not a single mention of the option of adopting a strong nuclear-free policy. No other options of any kind were provided. The government basically had been manoeuvred into a corner where it was hard to say no. . . . It was a classic bureaucratic stitch-up, the kind where the officials usually win. Foreign Affairs had already drafted a letter announcing the ship visit. There was, of course, no letter already drafted for the Government declining the ship visit.”
In hindsight, we know that, with Hager’s advice, O’Flynn was able to present cabinet with a fuller picture of the situation. Because there was no guarantee the particular US ship in question wouldn’t be carrying nuclear-weapons, it was within cabinet’s power to refuse the request. The decision effectively cemented our nuclear-free policy and avoided setting a precedent where New Zealand would be forced to grant entry to ships when it was unclear what their nuclear capabilities were. Critically, the decision went against all the advice from officials.
One of the key takeaways from Hager’s lecture was the influence that non-elected officials exerted over our foreign policy. He outlined how the terminology and framing that officials used in briefing documents for ministers often stacked policy decisions towards outcomes they wanted, even if the New Zealand public and its elected representatives disagreed — as Hager saw first-hand in 1985. He also highlighted how that very process relied on keeping the public, and often politicians, in the dark — a fundamentally undemocratic way of policy-making.
Hager’s message and experience is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago.
Based on public statements from our politicians, I don’t believe they have a good understanding of AUKUS. Both Christopher Hipkins and Christopher Luxon have made key messaging errors about the distinction between AUKUS Pillar One and Pillar Two. Errors were also made when the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, visited in July. Based on a statement from Nanaia Mahuta, Newshub actually reported that New Zealand wouldn’t be joining AUKUS at all — which we know isn’t correct. Then, Hipkins, in fronting media questions with Blinken, also made messaging errors about the degree to which the discussions around AUKUS Pillar Two were underway.
Now, more than ever, we need our politicians to understand what is at stake.
The priorities of AUKUS are underpinned by a mindset structured almost explicitly around the Anglosphere, around settler-colonial nations and thought patterns which view the Pacific as a sacrifice zone. It views our region as a military buffer and climate disaster zone. Pacific people are collateral in this vision.
When we think like that, we lose who we are. We start to disconnect ourselves from our neighbours and the environment around us, and we play down the importance of ancestral links for people in Aotearoa to the Pacific. We move away from our collective identity as peoples of the moana. We shift into a highly individual, security-focused mindset that deprioritises things like climate and human development in favour of militarisation.
It’s a fundamentally anti-Pacific way of thinking. It systematically undermines our values of connection and respect and the things that we share as people of Te-Moana-nui-ā-Kiwa.
Politically, it undermines the collective power of the Pacific Islands Forum. New Zealand’s participation in AUKUS Pillar Two would give credibility to the idea that the alliance is not a threat to regional stability or nuclear non-proliferation, and that it doesn’t violate the Treaty of Rarotonga.
We know none of that is true. AUKUS is a destabilising force and its underlying philosophy condones nuclear war fought in the Pacific. The gross figures it commits to military spending sit uneasily with Pacific nations’ own priorities. There’s no public support in Aotearoa for any of that.
Our politicians need to understand all of this. More than that, they need to tell us where they stand on AUKUS before we go to the polls.
Although it hasn’t featured in the election campaign so far, there’s no consensus in either of the major parties about New Zealand participation in AUKUS. Division within Labour is clear, with ministers like Andrew Little in support and others like Nanaia Mahuta and Carmel Sepuloni seeming to be less enthused.
Across the aisle, Christoper Luxon has spoken of a degree of bipartisanship on foreign policy, and spokesperson Gerry Brownlee has sought to moderate any hardline on China, including during the Defence strategy review. Minor parties are more clear, with ACT calling for a rise in military spending and support of Pillar Two, and the Greens and Te Pāti Māori in opposition, with the latter arguing Aotearoa should be militarily neutral.
Right now, we have two very different paths ahead. On one path is AUKUS and the worldview and role that it assigns us to. And on the other is what the Pacific Islands Forum has agreed to through the 2050 Blue Pacific Strategy. This vision centres on human development and climate action, and looks at a concept of security which is based on regional self-determination, and us thriving as people of the moana. It’s what all members of the Pacific Islands Forum have agreed to, including New Zealand. Participating in AUKUS is an abandonment of that and the regional consensus around it.
I call this a generation-defining policy decision because it’s about how we want to orientate ourselves to the region and the world. Just like our decision to be nuclear-free 40 years ago, this is about where we stand as a nation of the Pacific, and what we believe is the best way forward.
Any new government, irrespective of where it falls on the political divide, will turn up on day one and likely be presented with briefing papers on AUKUS Pillar Two. Soon after, a representative of that new government will likely be pressed on our stance on AUKUS at the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting in the Cook Islands in November.
It’s in all our interests to understand before we vote in October what each party’s vision is for Aotearoa New Zealand and the security of our region.
Dr Marco de Jong is a Sāmoan New Zealander, and a Pacific historian. He recently completed a doctorate at the University of Oxford on the history of the environmental movement in the Pacific Islands with a particular focus on anti-nuclearism and climate change. He is now serving as co-director of Te Kuaka, an independent group promoting a progressive role for Aotearoa in the world.
As told to Teuila Fuatai. Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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