The AUKUS nuclear submarine military pact has been widely condemned by Pacific leaders as neo-imperialism that violates a regional commitment to anti-nuclearism. Vocal opposition to the unjustifiable expense has also come from both the Australian public and state officials.
Despite widespread condemnation, Foreign Affairs briefing details obtained under the Official Information Act reveal the New Zealand Government has, for two years, been actively carving out a role for itself in the AUKUS alliance.
This intention, confirmed earlier this week by defence minister Andrew Little, reveals an outdated, colonial approach to foreign policy that betrays the Pacific, relegating the region to a sacrifice zone and the people to collateral.
In this piece, Marco de Jong and Arama Rata reflect on the threat AUKUS poses to the Pacific, the legacies of Pacific regionalism in opposing imperial domination, and our duty to protect our ancestral home, Hawaiki.
In 1984, Hilda Halkyard-Harawira, of the Pacific People’s Anti-Nuclear Action Committee, visited Kaho’olawe, the sacred voyaging school turned scarred bombing range, to show solidarity with Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) opposing the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) military exercises.
Her recollections, framed through mātauranga Māori, reveal that this was more than a protest. It was a voyage, both physical and spiritual, back across the storied waters of Te Moana nui a Kiwa to an ancestral home. Kaho’olawe evoked a sense of place that was generational, deeply oceanic, and rooted in a trans-Pacific struggle for justice.
To me Kaho’olawe was like a marae. There were no city distractions. People had to work together to make anything come about. Kaho’olawe had a real sense of sadness . . . like a quiet tangi. Kaho’olawe is like an old kuia who seldom sees her grandchildren — she’s happy when they are there but lonely when they are away.
And where the land is bombed and plundered — a spirit of sadness is conveyed to the rest of the island. It is almost like the old kuia knows that the young people are her hope to keep her alive.
[I] returned the kōhatu (stone) that my husband [Hone Harawira] had been given last year when he was present on another access. One of the Hawaiian men, Makanani, later said he was real happy to see the kōhatu again. For him it meant they had sent the stone forth for support and it had returned bringing a message of solidarity . . . We then hiked to Mooula.
This is the point of the island where the two ocean currents meet. There is where the Hawaiians came to plot their navigation courses through the Pacific with the help of the stars. This was probably the place where the migration to Aotearoa was planned when our ancestors left their homeland of Hawaiki.
Similarly, but drawing on different whakapapa, the “Māoris to Moruroa” contingent of the 1985 anti-France protests set sail for Ma’ohi Nui. Their voyage was a response to the French-orchestrated Rainbow Warrior bombing, and in opposition to Tahiti hosting the South Pacific Arts Festival amid continued colonialism and nuclear testing. A Māori ex-Navy sailor, Turi Blake, impelled by his first-hand experience of the bomb, staged his dual protest and homecoming on the protest yacht Breeze, which accompanied Greenpeace III and Vega to Moruroa:
In 1957-58 during the British bomb tests, I was on one of the New Zealand frigates, Pukaki, that acted as support at Christmas Island, and it was from [being] an eyewitness to the bomb that I changed.
My attitudes had changed . . . I feel that I have to go there and show my protest directly to the French. My ancestor, Turi, comes from Tahiti. I’m named after Turi, I’m a descendant of him. I don’t know how to explain it . . . to me, my family . . . part of my family is still there, living in the area where the French are testing.
Seeing the party off, Tame Iti of Ngāi Tūhoe (clad in a yellow anti-Springbok Tour “Bok Buster” T-shirt) reiterated this dual purpose:
This song is to remember us as you voyage across the vast Ocean of Kiwa, where our ancestors came from. Go in the knowledge that we are all with you in spirit . . . and also let’s not forget the struggle for the independence for the people of Tahiti, and right throughout the Pacific. And we believe that [we’ll] get rid of the French [out] of the Pacific . . . okay that is the main issue, that is our main kaupapa.
Our tīpuna and pakeke knew the enduring significance of Hawaiki to the peoples of Aotearoa. Hawaiki, our physical and spiritual place of origin and return. Hawaiki, our seat of civilisation, fount of knowledge, and source of the divine. Hawaiki, our strength, the wellspring of regeneration and resurgence.
But what does it mean to have such heritage and destiny in the face of Pacific extinction? Where to for Hawaiki if the moana takes back our islands, and our cultures are drowned?
For too long, we’ve been sidelined from decisions that wage war on Hawaiki. Those who claim to act in our name deny us our right and responsibility to protect our ancestral home.
This doesn’t just violate a “Treaty interest” but our tikanga and kawa: our original instructions. We must not become complicit by succumbing to militarisation. If we lose Hawaiki, who are we, and where will we go when we die?
We must act in the full understanding that the Pacific Ocean is becoming, once again, a sacrifice zone: a military buffer and climate disaster area. The superpower scramble for influence is constructing our ocean as the site of a future war. International failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions means many low-lying islands could be uninhabitable by the end of this century. We must arrest this trajectory, before our sea of islands ceases to exist.
The AUKUS alliance has signalled a disastrous turn in Australian foreign policy, and its near-complete absorption into the structure of American hegemony despite, or perhaps because of, its imminent decline.
Centred around the acquisition of nuclear submarines to combat Chinese influence, AUKUS has grave implications for nuclear non-proliferation and Pacific sovereignty. It contravenes the mandate of the Pacific Islands Forum and the spirit of regional agreements, including the 1985 South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, also known as the Treaty of Rarotonga.
The choice, through AUKUS, of defence over diplomacy, of militarism over multilateralism, is immoral and works to condemn the Pacific region.
AUKUS has laid bare the nuclearised ambitions of its signatories and their disregard for regional priorities, belying any spin about belonging to a Pacific “family”. Hawks in Canberra, Washington and London have the intel, they see a Pacific region that is facing deepening disaster.
But instead of committing to the alternative security vision held by other Pacific nations, centred on climate response and socio-economic resilience, as outlined in the Boe and Biketawa Declarations, they have chosen a securitised lens that sees the “Indo-Pacific” only in imperial terms.
The region features centrally in nuclear war-making as a space of transit, stationing and testing. Of outsourced nuclear risk. AUKUS deems our islands to be strategically important but sees Pacific people as collateral.
AUKUS is outmoded and ill-equipped for a contemporary reality where multiple global crises require rapid de-escalation and the restoration of multilateralism. Using faulty Cold War-era logic, AUKUS promises a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, but Pacific leaders remain unconvinced that A$350 billion nuclear submarines will provide that on their behalf.
Not only are there no winners in a conflict that will take us beyond limits, but this provocative “preparatory” militarism jeopardises our ability in the Pacific to address growing wealth inequality, increasing food insecurity and the climate crisis. AUKUS makes us less safe while actively eroding the basis of Pacific livelihoods and culture. AUKUS is an existential threat to Pacific ways of being.
This week, New Zealand’s Minister of Defence Andrew Little announced that New Zealand is “willing to explore” participation in “pillar two” of AUKUS. Stressing this would be non-nuclear in character, Little described potential cooperation in the areas of artificial intelligence and quantum computing. In reality, a recent Official Information Act request reveals that New Zealand has been designing a role for itself in AUKUS since its announcement in late 2021.
Welcoming “increased engagement” of AUKUS powers as “in the best interest of the region”, a declassified Foreign Affairs briefing of October 2021 suggests “there are likely to be significant opportunities to [cooperate] with AUKUS beyond the submarines, particularly in the cyber and artificial intelligence areas.”
This has happened without broad public consultation and by taking advantage of the ambiguity of the Five Eyes alliance. New Zealand is complicit in AUKUS war-making, resting on outdated, colonial and misinformed ideas of regional interests.
This is not new. Historically, New Zealand has exploited its ambivalent position between Pacific and metropolitan nations. In the mid-1980s, collusion between New Zealand, Australia and the United States formulated the Treaty of Rarotonga to preserve American nuclear ambitions, banning the testing, stationing, and dumping of nuclear weapons/waste but not the transit of nuclear-powered craft. It happens that this is the loophole Australia is exploiting to acquire the submarines.
Similarly, there is a worrying trend of New Zealand and Australian governments co-opting the language of climate justice and Indigenous ocean stewardship to securitise the region. Reference is frequently made to “Blue Pacific” issues like maritime boundaries, humanitarian relief or fishing as a wash for military spending.
This is the type of cynical politics that allows New Zealand to echo Pacific Island Forum lines that “climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”, but scale up our participation in polluting, inhumane war-making through RIMPAC military exercises or our ability to operate with AUKUS forces.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Our closest ally, Australia, has compromised itself and the region. Andrew Little must rescind his position, knowing that New Zealand draws its international standing from its influence in the Pacific. AUKUS jeopardises Aotearoa interests. Our Pacific family will not tolerate another American lapdog, and recent “joint” US-NZ statements and AUKUS overtures give no assurance that New Zealand can offer genuine partnership apart from American military interests.
Choosing militarism is not only immoral, it’s self-sabotage. It is bad diplomacy. New Zealand’s most successful foreign policy is our anti-nuclear stance. We have invested decades of political capital in solidifying a peaceful, principled global image. We are seen as a bastion of liberal internationalism, a proponent of a rules-based global order, and an honest broker because of this.
Aotearoa must regain the resolve to establish principled difference from superpower politics and contribute to the rebuilding of Pacific regionalism — in ways consistent with regional priorities, our Pacific identity, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Rather than subscribing blindly to AUKUS, driven by a neo-ANZAC delusion, we ought to fulfil our diplomatic potential as Aotearoa.
As individuals, communities, collectives, and coalitions, we can act in principled, purposive ways for a Pacific future. For generations, communities of activists and scholars in Aotearoa have acted in solidarity with Pacific whanaunga.
Here, we ought to recall the potency of coalitions such as the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Movement or the revival of waka hourua voyaging traditions.
Through these movements, Māori, Pasifika, and Pacific-minded allies contributed to a grassroots Pacific regionalism in opposition to colonial and capitalist domination. Movement leaders like Hilda Halkyard-Harawira, Turi Blake, and Tame Iti understood the stakes.
They knew that the regional environment is our heritage, the foundation of our unique cultures, and our only basis for a liberated future. They recognised the interdependency of our sea of islands and understood implicitly that we in Aotearoa are not only from but of the moana. They understood that complicity in regimes of militarism and imperialism elsewhere must be resisted, not least because it jeopardises our ability in Aotearoa to continue to live as Indigenous and Pacific peoples.
They remembered that we are Hawaiki. Our generation must rise as they did. Ka ea Hawaiki. We must assert our rangatiratanga and protect Hawaiki.
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.
Dr Arama Rata (Ngāruahine, Taranaki, Ngāti Maniapoto) is an independent researcher. Her current projects include WERO (Working to End Racial Oppression), and RIRI (Research to Interrupt Racism and (In)equity). She is a member of Te One Kakara (Taranaki Māori Research Network) and a steering committee member of Te Kuaka.
Kaho’olawe Access, excerpt from the PCRC steering committee Aotearoa/Australia report May 1984, reprinted in Te Hui Oranga o Te Moananui a Kiwa 1985, personal collection of George Armstrong.
“2 Maoris to Moruroa: 2 Maoris are taking part in the fleet to Mororua. Ranga o Te Aupouri has already left on the Alliance; and Tihema Galvin of Te Arawa will be leaving on Greenpeace Vega.” PPANAC Action Alert August 1985, Alexander Turnbull Library, Turnbull Serials.
Pita Turei, Hotu Painu, Documentary, 1988.
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