Jacinda Ardern needs to speak out on Aukus – her tacit approval allows a dangerous military build-up | Bryce Edwards

New Zealand’s prime minister has essentially turned a blind eye to the pact – she knows taking the moral high ground leads to punishment

New Zealand defence hawks reacted to the announcement of the anglophone security pact Aukus this month by complaining this country had been sidelined. In order to stay close to traditional allies, the hawks suggest New Zealand needs to either increase defence spending to compensate, or overturn New Zealand’s long-held ban on nuclear-powered vessels.

On the opposing side, there have been plenty of doves celebrating that New Zealand isn’t involved in Aukus. For example, editorials from the three biggest newspapers all took this stance, which probably reflects the general view of most New Zealanders.

By and large, however, there has been a distinct lack of debate about Aukus in this country. The politicians are in tune with this, by not really proclaiming a clear stance on the pact. Although there’s a suspicion that the hawkish National Party would like New Zealand signed up to the pact, while the traditionally more dove-like Labour party seem against it, there really haven’t been very big signals either way. Even the normally loud and moral Green Party has been entirely silent.

Labour prime minister Jacinda Ardern has been incredibly muted about Aukus, giving the strong impression that she’d rather not comment on it at all.

On the one hand she has reiterated the pure statement of fact – that any future Australian submarines will be legally barred from operating here. On the other hand, she’s expressed some warmth towards Aukus, saying she’s “pleased to see” the initiative, and declaring “we welcome the increased engagement of the UK and the US in our region”.

This fence-sitting is typical of Ardern’s diplomatic approach. But her refusal to condemn the escalating nuclear militarism is at great variance with her party’s traditions. Past prime ministers Norman Kirk and then David Lange were vigorous in their condemnation of the nuclear militarisation of the Pacific region in the 1970s and 1980s.

If Ardern was more in line with her predecessors, she might have made comments akin to those of former Australian prime minister Paul Keating, who warned that Aukus risks dragging Australia into a war with China due to “foreign policy incompetence and fawning compulsion to please America”.

In contrast, Ardern has essentially turned a blind eye to Aukus. While other leaders in the region – mostly notably the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia – 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.

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 to go ahead. Defence hawks in those countries are relying on leaders like Ardern to withhold any criticisms in order to allow the military buildup to occur. If “friends” like New Zealand voiced concerns it would undermine the legitimacy of the plans. Perhaps her leadership would even encourage other nations, politicians or activists to take a stance against Aukus.

And that’s why Ardern is reluctant to speak out – the diplomatic consequences from the anglophone allies would be significant. The US doesn’t take kindly to “allies” that undermine their moral authority with criticism.

New Zealand is once again stuck on its highwire act of appeasing both the US-led west and its biggest trading partner China. And a reminder of the pressure that China can assert came last Friday when Chinese authorities withdrew New Zealand kiwifruit from shelves, announcing that a batch had been detected as containing Covid.

Some observers see this as retaliation for New Zealand’s court of appeal fining a Chinese national $12m for allegedly smuggling kiwifruit plants into China.

While it might seem wise for Ardern and New Zealand to keep out of the way of both China and the US-led military plans, is that really what the world needs right now?

Pragmatism to protect self-interest? Not protesting the arrival of nuclear plans for the region when experts are forecasting that this is a turning point in a coming military confrontation with China?

Clearly the days of New Zealand’s foreign policy being based more on principles is over, and under Ardern pragmatism rules. This country is also in danger of tacitly aligning with the anglophone hawks, while other dissenting nations in the region such as Indonesia and Malaysia are left isolated in their stand against increased militarism.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern is the odds-on favourite to take the Nobel Peace Prize next week, according to betting agencies. But does Ardern deserve the peace prize, when she’s effectively turning a blind eye to the quickly escalating military buildup in a region she claims she always puts first?

  • Dr Bryce Edwards is the political analyst in residence at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, where he is the director of the Democracy Project.


Bryce Edwards

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Taking on Scott Morrison over deportees is a win-win strategy for Jacinda Ardern | Bryce Edwards
With an election looming, the PM needs to be seen to be ruffling feathers on issues of principle, but what comes next?

Bryce Edwards

01, Mar, 2020 @4:30 PM

Article image
In a crisis, you want Jacinda Ardern. That’s why her poll numbers will remain robust | Morgan Godfery
Ardern is imperfect and her government often struggles to implement its agenda – but they excel at crisis management

Morgan Godfery

23, Nov, 2021 @7:00 PM

Article image
New Zealanders – like Jacinda Ardern – might not be shocked by earthquakes, but we do get scared | Charlotte Graham-McClay
Many of us recognised ourselves in the PM’s cool response to an earthquake on live TV, but we do fear the ‘big one’

Charlotte Graham-McLay in Wellington

26, May, 2020 @5:05 AM

Article image
Jacinda Ardern holds special coronavirus press conference for children
New Zealand PM says young people need extra help to understand the pandemic, as country reports 28 cases

Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin

19, Mar, 2020 @2:36 AM

Article image
Jacinda Ardern calls for 'factual and positive' New Zealand election campaign
PM says she wants to avoid misinformation and culture wars in the run up to the vote in September

Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin

23, Jan, 2020 @12:28 AM

Article image
Jacinda Ardern suggests opposition leader Judith Collins is a ‘Karen’
Comments by New Zealand PM came during a parliamentary debate on the country’s new hate speech laws

Tess McClure in Christchurch

30, Jun, 2021 @11:45 PM

Article image
Jacinda Ardern looks to life beyond lockdowns with 90% vaccination target
News that jabs may soon be approved for children could allow New Zealand to achieve milestone, experts say, but equality in access must be improved

Eva Corlett in Wellington

24, Sep, 2021 @2:02 AM

Article image
Jacinda Ardern sacks immigration minister over year-long affair with staff member
Iain Lees-Galloway fired following a tip off to New Zealand’s PM from the opposition leader

Eleanor Ainge Roy in Queenstown

22, Jul, 2020 @3:05 AM

Article image
New Zealand’s differences with China becoming ‘harder to reconcile’, Jacinda Ardern says
Prime minister has been coming under pressure from allies to take a tougher approach towards country’s largest trading partner

Tess McClure in Christchurch

03, May, 2021 @12:17 AM

Article image
Housing, inequality, climate: what the Guardian's New Zealand readers asked Jacinda Ardern
As an election year approaches, several key themes emerged from questions you sent in for the prime minister

Alison Rourke

21, Dec, 2019 @7:00 PM