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By Christina Persico, RNZ Pacific

An international relations professor says that if New Zealand joins AUKUS it could impact on its relations with Pacific countries.

AUKUS is a security agreement between Australia, the UK and the US, which will see Australia supplied with nuclear-powered submarines.

That has raised concern in the Pacific, which is under the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, also known as the Treaty of Rarotonga.

The topic has come up while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited New Zealand.

The visit came after he visited Tonga.

Robert Patman, professor of international relations at the University of Otago, said New Zealand’s views on non-nuclear security are shared by the majority of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members and also the Pacific Island states.

“Even if New Zealand joined AUKUS in a non-nuclear fashion, technically, it may be seen through the eyes of others as diluting our commitment to that norm,” Professor Patman said.

Sharing defence information
Professor Patman explained that “pillar 1” of AUKUS is about providing nuclear-powered submarines to Australia over two or three decades, and “pillar 2” is to do with sharing information on defence technologies.

“We haven’t closed the door on it, but it’s a considerable risk from New Zealand’s point of view, because a lot of our credibility is having an independent foreign policy.”

Professor Robert Patman
Professor Robert Patman . . . the Pacific may not view New Zealand joining AUKUS favourably – if it is to happen in the future. Image: RNZ Pacific

Asked about New Zealand’s potential membership in AUKUS, Blinken said work on pillar 2 was ongoing.

“The door is very much open for New Zealand and other partners to engage as they see appropriate,” he said.

“New Zealand is a deeply trusted partner, obviously a Five Eyes member.

“We’ve long worked together on the most important national security issues.”

New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said the government was exploring pillar 2 of the deal.

Not committed
But she said New Zealand had not committed to anything.

Mahuta said New Zealand had been clear it would not compromise its nuclear-free position, and that was acknowledged by AUKUS members.

Patman said that statement was reassurance for Pacific Island states.

“[New Zealand is] party to the Treaty of Rarotonga,” he said.

“We have to weigh up whether the benefits of being in pillar 2 outweigh possible external perception that we’re eroding our commitment, to being party to an arrangement which is facilitating the transfer of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.”

He said New Zealand had also been in talks with NATO about getting access to cutting-edge technology, so it was not dependent on AUKUS for that.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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