New Zealand is not part of a new security pact between Australia, the UK and US, in what experts say is an illustration of the distance between the country and its traditional allies.
On Wednesday, the three countries announced a trilateral security partnership, Aukus, aimed at confronting China, which will include helping Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines. New Zealand and Canada were notably absent.
New Zealand’s longstanding nuclear-free policy also means that Australian submarines developed under the deal are banned from New Zealand waters. “New Zealand’s position in relation to the prohibition of nuclear-powered vessels in our waters remains unchanged,” the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said on Thursday.
She said the new agreement “in no way changes our security and intelligence ties with these three countries, as well as Canada”. Asked by reporters if New Zealand had been offered a place, Ardern said, “We weren’t approached, nor would I expect us to be.”
However, New Zealand is “conspicuous by its absence,” said Geoffrey Miller, international analyst at the Democracy Project. “Canada and New Zealand are sort of being relegated here. It shows how far apart Australian and New Zealand foreign policymakers are.”
Prof David Capie, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University in Wellington, said New Zealand was not being “sidelined”, but the deal more starkly illustrated existing differences between the country and its security partners.
“It highlights that much deeper level of Australian integration into US defence and security planning and thinking about China and about the region,” he said. “There’s no doubt this is a big deal. But New Zealand and Australia were in a different space to begin with, and this has perhaps just made that look sharper again.”
“Australia and New Zealand are culturally quite similar and geographically in similar positions, but they are poles apart in terms of the way they see the world,” Miller said. “I think this alliance underlines that they’re going in very different directions.”
The opposition National party has been critical of New Zealand’s absence from the deal, saying it looks like New Zealand was “left out of the loop”.
“The government needs to come clean about what happened here. Does this new partnership affect our Five Eyes relationship? What about our relationship with Australia, the one country that we have the closest defence and economic partnership? And will this have an impact on our standing as a responsible international citizen?” defence spokesperson Gerry Brownlee asked.
“The government needs to explain why it looks as though New Zealand has been left out of the loop,” Brownlee said. “Were we consulted or at the table to discuss with a group of countries that we’ve considered likeminded for quite some time?”
‘All about China’
While the agreement does not specifically cite China, Beijing looms large in the background. The pact comes at a time of rising tensions in the Asia-pacific region, especially over Taiwan, and China’s increasing presence in the South China Sea. US officials speaking to reporters before the announcement did not mention China, speaking instead about “sustaining and improving deterrence”, but left little doubt which power Aukus was supposed to deter.
“This is driven overwhelmingly by concerns about China,” Capie said. “Notwithstanding the fact that China is not mentioned in the statements, it’s all about China.”
And as Australia has adopted increasingly hawkish rhetoric on Beijing, New Zealand’s milder positioning has sometimes raised eyebrows across the Tasman and in the UK.
Over the past year, foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta has repeatedly emphasised New Zealand’s “independent” and “values-based” foreign policy. In April, the minister caused a minor stir with comments that New Zealand was “uncomfortable with expanding the remit of the Five Eyes,” a remark that some saw as a shift away from that alliance. In China, state-run media heralded the comments as “New Zealand secure[ing] its interests by distancing from US-led clique”.
“To be clear, New Zealand values the Five Eyes relationship,” Mahuta told the Guardian in May. “It’s a security and intelligence framework from which we can work with trusted allies on those specific issues. But … we don’t need the Five Eyes to articulate where we stand on human rights issues.”
The Aukus agreement illustrates some of those differences – between Australia’s increasingly close alignment with the US on China issues, and New Zealand’s relative distance.
The pact does not include Canada, the other Five Eyes partner, either. In recent years, Canada and New Zealand have had similarities in their orientation toward Beijing – condemning human rights breaches on specific issues in a case-by-case way, but avoiding strong statements on the country more broadly.
Miller said both countries were “trying to walk the tightrope a bit, and not trying to get into a big spat with China”.
There had been “quite a lot of pressure put on New Zealand to join the western position on China,” Miller said, “but New Zealand largely held firm through all those overtures. I think in the end, this is the alternative.”
An uncomfortable principle
The primary focus of the Aukus agreement is supply of nuclear submarines to Australia – a development that would see parts of the Australian naval force barred from New Zealand waters.
Since the mid-1980s, New Zealand has had a strict policy keeping its territorial sea, land and airspace as nuclear-free zones. The policy, made partly in solidarity with Pacific islands suffering the fallout of nuclear testing, created a rift with the United States, which suspended its obligations to New Zealand under the Anzus treaty.
Although any nuclear-powered submarines are barred from New Zealand ports, that prohibition may be more theoretical than logistical, given Australian and US submarines likely have little reason to be in New Zealand waters. “I don’t think in practical terms, it’s going to create a problem,” Capie said. “But the principle that some of the defence capabilities of your only ally are unable to visit your waters is an uncomfortable one.”
In her statement, Ardern emphasised New Zealand’s Pacific connections – in what Capie said could be read as a nod to the country’s nuclear-free history. “New Zealand is first and foremost a nation of the Pacific and we view foreign policy developments through the lens of what is in the best interest of the region,” Ardern said.
“We welcome the increased engagement of the UK and US in the region and reiterate our collective objective needs to be the delivery of peace and stability and the preservation of the international rules based system.”
Capie said Ardern’s statement reinforced the message of her other recent speeches, “that NZ prefers to focus on its immediate neighbourhood rather than on maritime Asia where that much sharper military confrontation with China is playing out,” he said. “[That’s] where the new Australian subs would be operating.”