Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – Why Australia’s nuclear-sub defence plans are unpopular in NZ

Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – Why Australia’s nuclear-sub defence plans are unpopular in NZ

New Zealand was said to have been sidelined when the trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States was announced a week ago. But very quickly the “Aukus” pact has taken on an unpopularity in this country, with a consensus forming that New Zealand is best out of the defence arrangement. This is especially due to its centrepiece nuclear submarine plans, which will have huge ramifications for the Asia Pacific region.

The New Zealand Government has been noticeably muted in their response to the arrival of Aukus. Officially the Anglophone initiative is being welcomed, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pointing out that although legally the new submarines won’t be able to enter New Zealand waters, nonetheless “we welcome the increased engagement of the UK and the US in our region”.

I’ve criticised this stance in an analysis column in which I argue that the New Zealand Government should actually be condemning this dangerous warmongering, as such a nuclear and military escalation is not in the interests of New Zealand nor the Asia-Pacific region – see: What happened to the dream of a peaceful nuclear-free Pacific?.

Why is Ardern so soft on the Anglo-militarisation of the Pacific? I argue that “Ardern doesn’t want to get offside and suffer diplomatic consequences. In this regard, she is no David Lange or Norman Kirk. These former Labour prime ministers were at the forefront of the fight against militarism and nuclear technology in the Pacific, and were willing to pay a price to uphold their country’s independent foreign policy.”

I’m not the only one to notice Ardern’s soft approach to the escalation of nuclear and military tensions. Richard Harman says “New Zealand has been absent from any international discussion on the agreement”, and points out that Ardern’s statement was “to partly defend the thinking behind Aukus” – see: Ardern lays it on the line (paywalled).

According to Harman, it’s one thing to say that the subs won’t be able to come here due to the law, but Ardern hasn’t extended this statement to say New Zealand is also “not welcoming them because they represent an international alignment which we do not share.”

Progressive condemnation of Aukus

There’s been very little debate and comment from politicians and political parties. Even the Greens have gone quiet on this. Political activists – even from the peace movement – have been silent or unbothered by the landmark military announcement.

However, one strong voice against it is former Green MP Keith Locke, who penned a scathing analysis of the deal, saying Ardern has welcomed engagement in the Pacific to curry favour with US and allies, but that New Zealanders should be upset by the nuclearisation of our neighbour, pointing out that it’s a slipperly slope towards Australia getting nuclear weapons – see: Many anti-nuclear reasons to oppose Aukus.

Locke says that “New Zealand has long championed nuclear disarmament” and pushed for treaties in the region that prevent nuclear arms and pollution, which he believes are about to be violated by the three Anglophone countries.

Chris Trotter has written two columns warning against New Zealand becoming ensnared in the Anglo alliance of countries that have been illegally waging wars in other parts of the world to ill-effect – see: A coalition of the waning. He says: “Surely, it is time for New Zealand to break free of the imperial project in which it has been enmeshed for the past 181 years?”

But he warns that those in the MFAT and Defence Establishment will be alarmed that this country has been left out of the pact of our traditional allies, and they’ll now be pressuring the Labour Government to get closer to Washington – see: Keep New Zealand Nuclear-Free – stay out of Aukus!.

Similarly, today leftwing political commentator Gordon Campbell says New Zealand is lucky to be outside of the Aukus deal, and will be increasingly seen by other countries as saner in its orientation to China – see: On Canada’s election, and the Aukus defence pact. Campbell believes that the new nuclear subs won’t even be of much use in defending Australasia – they are more of a forward attack mechanism to point against China.

Newspaper editorials united against Aukus

The major newspapers have also published editorials that are negative about Aukus. The New Zealand Herald editorial is the strongest – painting a picture of an agreement that threatens to make a volatile situation in the region even worse – see: Aukus security pact has rocky start; could make China, Asia tensions worse (paywalled).

The Herald argues that the motivations behind the defence announcement are more about the three Anglo countries’ domestic politics – it’s about political reputations rather than the public interest. And the paper warns that it pushes Australia and the region closer to war, “and other countries may seek nuclear-powered subs”.

The Otago Daily Times is also unimpressed, suggesting that New Zealand is fortunate not to be involved – see: Scotty’s submarines steaming ahead. The paper also says “it is upsetting to think of nuclear subs operating off our coastline”, and therefore “Former Labour prime ministers Norman Kirk and David Lange, and generations of peace and nuclear-free advocates, will be spinning in their graves at the thought of nuclear subs just across the Tasman Sea.”

Today’s Stuff editorial is also highly negative about the deal, labelling it “a major development with unsettling implications”, and rebutting those that suggest New Zealand needs to now get closer to these Anglo allies – see: Hawkish Aukus not for us.

The prospect of US nuclear-armed subs being hosted nearby is also pointed out by the editorial: “Australia is getting a leg up to receive nuclear-propelled submarines, and is also expected to offer a base for its allies’ own submarines, some of them potentially nuclear-armed, to receive deep maintenance, thereby maintaining a sustained presence in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Aukus presents opportunities for New Zealand

The above Stuff newspaper editorial argues that instead of following the Anglophone’s hawkish approach, New Zealand should be less black and white towards China, “which is to co-operate with China where we can and team up with like-minded democracies to push back where there are disagreements that require it.” Such an approach might well see New Zealand rewarded in trade terms with both China and the European Union.

This is also an argument made by international analyst Geoffrey Miller, who says that countries like New Zealand that are deliberately not part of the aggressive Aukus-style orientation towards China will be rewarded, not just in the Asia Pacific, but also in Europe where Australia’s reputation has been sunk at the crucial time that trade deals are being negotiated with this part of the world – see: New Zealand could be the big winner of Aukus fallout.

Miller argues that the creation of Aukus heralds the establishment of “a new hierarchy when it comes to countries’ views of China” – with the “premier league” of defence hawks including the US, UK and Australia (perhaps also with India and Japan), whereas a “second division includes the EU, Canada and New Zealand, as well as potentially some Southeast Asian countries”. He predicts that New Zealand will sit well within that group of like-minded countries, who will prosper by taking a less confrontational approach to China.

Similarly, Pete McKenzie believes that this like-minded grouping of countries is an opportunity for New Zealand to break away from its current pivot towards the US-led confrontation with China – see: Aukus pact could push New Zealand to deepen relations with Europe and Pacific.

Aukus puts pressure on New Zealand

The arrival of the Aukus pact will ratchet up pressure on New Zealand to contribute to traditional defence agreements according to some commentators. This is best seen in Thomas Manch’s article: Why doesn’t New Zealand have submarines? Aukus highlights pressing military question for Government.

In this, former defence minister Wayne Mapp is quoted saying that Australia will now be applying the pressure: “It’s certain that Australia, at least, will be saying, ‘Well you’re a military ally of ours, what are you gonna do?’”… When you are in a military alliance, it has obligations as well as advantages. There’s no bucking that fact, and we can’t hide behind the nuclear-free thing and say, ‘Oh that answers everything’. It doesn’t.”

Pressure to spend much more on defence equipment will be one specific outcome. Mapp points to the need for new frigates to match those of Australia: “This particular [Aukus] announcement will put quite a bit of pressure on the New Zealand Government to make it clear how they’re going to replace the Anzac frigates, because they can’t wish that decision away.”

There’s a growing consensus that the arrival of Aukus means that an Anglo-Chinese military confrontation is much more likely than before. And the Herald’s Audrey Young has looked at what this escalation might mean for New Zealand, and in particular whether this country would be expected to contribute militarily to the US-led side – see: Preparing for war between US and China – what it means for NZ and Australia (paywalled).

In this, Young makes it clear that if New Zealand chose to stand aside from the US, failing to endorse its military and diplomatic strategies, there would be trouble: “What New Zealand says matters in terms of allegiances, because as a small country with relatively little economic or military strength, its voice is often its biggest contribution. Hence the pile-on when it takes a different position to its larger friends.”

For an example of the heat that New Zealand experiences due to perceptions amongst allies that it is not pulling its weight see Scott Palmer’s Aukus: New Zealand labelled ‘a joke’ after nuclear-free stance blocks Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines.

Although this article contains the expected condemnation of New Zealand from Australia, it does raise legitimate concerns about New Zealand no longer having defence interoperability with Australia. In particular, the question is asked: how can New Zealand rely on its biggest defence ally, Australia, coming to its defence in the future when its nuclear-propelled vessels won’t be allowed into local waters?

Finally, some are arguing that Aukus means that it’s now time for New Zealand to ditch its laws banning nuclear propulsion. For more on this, see Stuff political editor Luke Malpass’ column, Why Aukus should make us reconsider parts of our nuclear-free stance.