Bryce Edwards: What happened to the dream of a peaceful nuclear-free Pacific?

Bryce Edwards: What happened to the dream of a peaceful nuclear-free Pacific?

Plans by Anglophone countries to ramp up militarisation in the Asia Pacific region have been welcomed by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. But Bryce Edwards argues that what’s actually needed is strong condemnation of this dangerous drive to war and instability.


New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is the odds-on favourite to take the Nobel Peace Prize in two weeks, according to betting agencies.

But does Ardern deserve the peace prize, given her muted response to Friday’s announcement that New Zealand’s defence allies are escalating their military plans in the Asia Pacific, introducing nuclear-powered submarines?

While other leaders in the region have reacted with alarm at what is seen as “warmongering”, the start of an “arms race”, and “beating the war drums” against China, New Zealand has chosen to stay quiet.

In her reaction to the announcement of the Aukus defence pact, Ardern pointed out the obvious – New Zealand’s anti-nuclear laws mean the new subs won’t be able to enter local waters. Yet she added that “we welcome the increased engagement of the UK and the US in our region”, and “I am pleased to see that the eye has been tuned to our region from partners that we work closely with because, of course, this is a contested region”.

In stark contrast, other countries in the Asia Pacific region have spoken out against the militarisation. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob publicly raised his fears that Aukus would spark a nuclear weapon race in the region and lead to Australia violating crucial conventions. And Indonesia stated it is “deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region”.

The problem with Ardern’s muted response to the nuclear deal is that it gives the American superpower and its Anglo allies tacit approval for their plans, enabling them go ahead. The defence hawks in those countries are relying on leaders like Ardern to withhold any criticisms in order to allow the military build-up to occur. If “friends” like New Zealand voiced concerns it would undermine the legitimacy of the plans.

Indeed, if Ardern joined the likes of former Australian prime minister Paul Keating in pointing out that the decision risks dragging Australia into a war with China due to “foreign policy incompetence and fawning compulsion to please America” then a popular movement against the war preparations might grow – not just in the wider Asia Pacific, but also in the Anglo countries themselves.

So why is Ardern so positive towards the Aukus deal? It can’t be due to any enthusiasm for it domestically – there appears to be a strong consensus that New Zealand is better off out of it. Almost certainly Ardern is motivated by diplomatic and strategic concerns, seeking to keep onside with New Zealand’s traditional allies. Speaking up for peace and against the introduction of a new nuclear threat to the region, would be met with pressure and intimidation from Canberra and Washington.

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.

In contrast to these New Zealand progressive traditions, Ardern is capitulating to Washington and Canberra, and risks dragging her country into any coming military confrontation with China. Without vocally distancing New Zealand from this escalation, and effectively drawing a line in the sand against military adventurism, Ardern is positioning this country to be called upon to help in any such war. This happened two decades ago to New Zealand’s last Labour Prime Minister, Helen Clark – with her agreeing to send military forces to the ill-fated invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq.

At the very least, the continued participation in these traditional defence alliances means New Zealand will be pressured to buy yet more military hardware in order to keep up with the Anglo nations. This current government has already escalated military spending with a huge $2.3 billion purchase of new aircraft – some of which is specifically designed to hunt and destroy Chinese submarines. And now defence analysts are talking about the need for New Zealand to keep up with the Aukus agreement by purchasing expensive new frigates.

None of this is in New Zealand’s interest. By increasingly aligning the country against China to appease the traditional Anglo allies, the Government is jeopardising a healthy trading relationship, which strongly bolsters the standard of living here.

By not speaking out, Ardern is placing New Zealand on the side of the US and against China. This country is in danger of tacitly aligning with the hawks, while other dissenting nations in the region such as Indonesian and Malaysia are left isolated in their stand against increased militarism.

New Zealand must be part of this debate. Backing the hawks of the Asia Pacific region and leaving the doves to their fate is not a stance befitting a Nobel peace prize winner.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.