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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Robert G. Patman, Professor of International Relations, University of Otago

Despite inheriting positive bilateral ties with Australia and the US, New Zealand’s coalition government has indicated it wants an even closer alignment with traditional allies.

In what has been described as “the most challenging strategic environment for decades”, Foreign Minister Winston Peters and Defence Minister Judith Collins held discussions with their Australian counterparts in Melbourne this month.

This was the first time in trans-Tasman relations that ministers in these portfolios have met in such a “two-on-two” format.

A statement issued after the talks said “the two countries share close bonds of history and geography, liberal democratic values, regional and global interests and strategic outlook”.

The statement also agreed the AUKUS security partnership “made a positive contribution toward maintaining peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific”.

These words may have signalled a potentially momentous break with New Zealand’s previous foreign policy.

A distinctive worldview

There has long been bipartisan acknowledgement that Australia is New Zealand’s closest and most important ally. But there appeared to be little recognition at the meeting that New Zealand’s evolving sense of national identity – anchored in the Pacific – has generated a distinctive worldview.

For much of the post-war era, the New Zealand-Australian alliance has been one of unity rather than uniformity. It has accommodated relatively independent New Zealand stances on non-nuclear security, opposition to the illegal US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and relations with China.

It may be a stretch to say the alliance promoted a principled, independent New Zealand foreign policy, but it has certainly not proved to be an impediment.

However, those days may now be coming to an end. A tighter alignment with Australia – given Canberra’s own very close relationship with Washington – could make New Zealand itself more reliant on US strategic input.

Read more:
The defence dilemma facing NZ’s next government: stay independent or join ‘pillar 2’ of AUKUS?

China not the only threat

Close ties with Australia do not mean it is necessarily in New Zealand’s strategic interests to join AUKUS.

Established in 2021, the trilateral security pact between Australia, the US and UK purports to defend “a shared commitment to the international rules-based order” in the Indo-Pacific region.

But it is clearly intended to counter the challenge of China’s assertiveness, and consists of two “pillars”.

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NZ’s first national security strategy signals a ‘turning point’ and the end of old certainties

Pillar one involves Australia receiving eight to ten nuclear-powered submarines from the US and UK over the next three decades. New Zealand is now actively exploring whether to join pillar two, envisaging the sharing of cutting-edge defence technologies.

According to Collins, New Zealand’s “defence has been absolutely gutted in the last three years and we’ve got to build that back”.

While last year’s national security strategy acknowledged New Zealand’s “stability, security and prosperity” depends critically on an international rules-based order, it is also evident China is not the sole threat to this order.

Gaza and Ukraine

Firstly, there is the unconditional support of the US and UK for the Israeli government’s disproportionate and relentless military response in Gaza to the October 7 terrorist attacks.

An estimated 28,000 Palestinians have been killed, prompting the International Court of Justice to order Israel to prevent acts of genocide there.

New Zealand has voted twice in the UN General Assembly for an immediate humanitarian truce or ceasefire. It also recently joined Australia and Canada in calling for a ceasefire before any ground assault on Rafah.

Read more:
From the Middle East to the South China Sea: NZ’s new government inherits a defence dilemma

But the government has nevertheless overlooked US complicity (through military aid and use of its Security Council veto) in the Gaza catastrophe. That complicity has allowed Iran and China to strategically capitalise on global anger over the plight of the Palestinians.

As well, Wellington has accepted a US request to send a Defence Force team to the Red Sea to help repel Houthi attacks on civilian shipping.

New Zealand and Australia have a huge stake in reversing the illegal and brutal Russian attempt to annex parts of Ukraine. The Biden administration, however, has struggled since late 2023 to sustain vital military aid to Kyiv.

Serious opposition within the US Congress from some members of the Republican party raises questions for its allies – including its AUKUS partners – about US commitment to the international rules order.

Read more:
The ‘number 8 wire’ days for NZ’s defence force are over – new priorities will demand bigger budgets

Would AUKUS help or hinder NZ interests?

There is also a concern among Pacific Island and ASEAN states that New Zealand’s possible participation in AUKUS pillar two could heighten great power rivalry.

Elevating a view that only the US and its Anglosphere partners can counter Chinese influence in the vast region carries several risks.

It may undercut regional leadership, and de-emphasise local national security concerns such as climate change. It might also hurt New Zealand’s diplomatic standing as a Pacific nation projecting an independent, rules-based, non-nuclear foreign policy that is distinguishable from its traditional allies.

Read more:
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The current security situation faces multiple challenges – including US exceptionalism, China’s assertiveness, Russian expansionism and UN Security Council dysfunction.

The key question is whether access to the start-of-the-art defence technologies of AUKUS pillar two will help address or aggravate these challenges for a relatively small actor like New Zealand.

On balance, and mindful that AUKUS does not have a monopoly over new defence technologies, there is little evidence that participation in pillar two will significantly advance New Zealand’s distinctive interests and values in the Indo-Pacific region or elsewhere.

And it should certainly not be regarded as a quick fix for under-investment in the country’s defence sector by governments over many years.

The Conversation

Robert G. Patman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Moving closer to Australia is in New Zealand’s strategic interest – joining AUKUS is not –