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.

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