Aukus pact could push New Zealand to deepen relations with Europe and Pacific

·4-min read

During the announcement that America, the United Kingdom and Australia had formed a new Aukus defence pact – inaugurated with the sale of American nuclear-powered submarines to Australia – Australian prime minister Scott Morrison lauded it as a “forever partnership for a new time between the oldest and most trusted of friends”.

That phrasing was notable given that the deal excluded New Zealand, which has historically been so close with Australia that the Australian constitution contemplates complete integration of the two countries. Remarkably, New Zealand’s government apparently only learned about the Aukus deal when it began to be reported in the media on Wednesday.

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It’s the latest indication that New Zealand is being left behind by its traditional Anglosphere partners. Ironically the widening gap between New Zealand and the Aukus powers is largely not of New Zealand’s choosing, despite its longstanding commitment to foreign policy “independence”.

Faced with growing great power competition between China and America, New Zealand has made some moves towards alignment with the latter. Over the last few years it has bought American military equipment, explicitly named China as a threat to the international rules-based order and refused to allow China’s Huawei to upgrade 5G infrastructure due to security concerns. Most recently, it joined America and others to explicitly condemn Chinese cyber-aggression. New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern adopted the “Indo-Pacific” framing – an American attempt to rhetorically rebalance Asia away from China – in reaction to “more challenging geopolitics” in the Pacific.

But even as New Zealand took these steps, America, Britain and Australia moved further and faster toward a more aggressive anti-China approach. America and Australia have reinvigorated the “Quad” partnership with Japan and India, with the implicit goal of constraining China.

America, Britain and Australia also pushed for their Five Eyes partnership with Canada and New Zealand to expand beyond its traditional focus on intelligence-gathering. Britain has recently deployed naval vessels to the Indo-Pacific, and Australia’s purchase of nuclear-powered submarines will allow it to also take on a more muscular military role.

The Aukus announcement prompted an unsurprisingly hostile reaction from China. Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, decried the Aukus deal as “utterly irresponsible conduct” and said it would “seriously damage regional peace and stability, exacerbate an arms race and harm international nuclear nonproliferation agreements.”

Faced with this increasingly confrontational relationship between America, Britain and Australia on the one hand and China on the other, New Zealand has been reluctant to go as far as its erstwhile partners. Compared with other Anglosphere nations, it has retained a comparatively constructive approach with China (which is by far its largest trading partner). The result is an unmistakable gap between it and the Anglosphere countries it has historically allied itself with – vividly illustrated by the fact that, in line with New Zealand’s longstanding nuclear-free policy, Australia’s new nuclear-powered submarines will not be permitted to enter New Zealand waters.

In fact, New Zealand’s approach is now more similar to a different “western” grouping – the European Union – which has also taken a relatively independent stance towards the Sino-American contest. In a policy paper released Thursday titled The EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, European leaders emphasised they would cooperate with China as much possible, while simultaneously partnering with other Indo-Pacific states to constrain Chinese power and “pushing back where fundamental disagreement exists with China, such as on human rights.” This attempt to balance between America and China is in line with the “strategic autonomy” which French president Emmanuel Macron has said Europe should aim for.

Related: As dark clouds build across the Indo-Pacific, Australia hopes the Aukus pact will bolster security and confidence | John Blaxland

That presents an opportunity: it’s possible New Zealand could deepen its relationships with partners like the EU (and Canada, which was also excluded from the Aukus partnership) to partly offset the growing divide within the Anglosphere. Distance from the largely white Anglosphere nations could also help New Zealand deepen relationships with the Pacific countries which its foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, has previously promised to prioritise.

Nonetheless, and not by choice, New Zealand is increasingly being left behind by the nations it has been closest to for over a century. As a result, the coming years will be a test of whether New Zealand can navigate growing geopolitical tensions as the “independent” actor it has long claimed to be, or whether it will be forced to conclusively pick a side.

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