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Nicholas Khoo
Nicholas Khoo
Nicholas Khoo is Associate Professor of International Politics and Principal Research Fellow, Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs (Christchurch), University of Otago.

Critics of NZ joining AUKUS need to answer a crucial question: what exactly is an independent foreign policy?

AUKUS opinion
USS Annapolis (SSN 760), a Los Angeles class fast-attack submarine arrives at HMAS Stirling. Image – asa.gov.au.

Last week’s visit of the Australian and British defence and foreign ministers to Adelaide and Canberra is another step in the evolution of the trilateral AUKUS security and technology partnership.

Highlights of the visit included the signing of a new defence and security agreement, and the formal appointment of British firm BAE and Australian government-owned company ASC to build submarines under the “pillar one” component of AUKUS.

The visit is an important reminder that Australia’s 2021 decision to initiate AUKUS represents one of the most important developments for New Zealand’s foreign policy since the breakdown of the ANZUS alliance in the mid-1980s.

Membership in AUKUS “pillar two” would represent a valuable contribution to New Zealand’s security, the ANZAC alliance and regional security.

What is an independent foreign policy?

AUKUS’ growing strategic significance has two implications for New Zealand.

First, it highlights the imperative for greater clarity in our foreign policy discourse, beginning with the concept of New Zealand’s “independent foreign policy” and Australia’s role in it.

Former prime minister Helen Clark and former National Party leader Don Brash recently stated their opposition to New Zealand’s participation in AUKUS, citing the incompatibility between membership and maintaining our independent foreign policy.

This is curious logic. There are certainly questions that need to be answered before making a decision on AUKUS pillar two – not least if we can actually afford membership, and whether there is domestic support from the electorate.

But the danger posed by AUKUS to an independent foreign policy is not one of them.

Quite the opposite, in fact. If the concept of an independent foreign policy means anything, it surely must mean New Zealand retains the ability to make foreign policy decisions based on its national interests.

Time to define independence

Close alliances and partnerships with other states are clearly compatible with both foreign policy independence and New Zealand’s national interests. After all, few alliances in contemporary world politics have been as enduring or as close as the ANZAC alliance.

There is therefore no persuasive reason to preemptively rule out New Zealand’s AUKUS membership — as AUKUS critics appear to have done.

Moving forward, our independent foreign policy concept needs to be defined more rigorously – including a consideration of costs, benefits and responsibilities.

Equally significantly, the AUKUS critics’ commentary undervalues Australia’s role in New Zealand’s foreign policy. We need to correct this blind spot.

Like it or not, New Zealand’s decision on AUKUS pillar two will invariably be seen by Canberra as a signal of its commitment to the ANZAC alliance. How can it not be?

New Zealand’s limited response to the unprecedented sanctions policy imposed on Australia by China since 2020 might be viewed in some quarters as necessary pragmatism, but it has come at the cost of alliance solidarity.

Do AUKUS critics view our reticence in that instance as an example of the effective functioning of an independent foreign policy? It would be instructive to know the answer.

Foreign policy needs to be strategic

Second, a fit-for-purpose foreign policy cannot be indifferent to strategic context. We are a long way from the historically benign era that existed from the end of the Cold War to the onset of US-China strategic competition in 2017.

The onus is therefore on AUKUS critics to explain how exactly they propose to provide for New Zealand’s national security if it is not through AUKUS. If New Zealand does not invest in AUKUS, what exactly is the critics’ vision for the ANZAC alliance?Given the persistent budgetary challenges New Zealand faces, how does passing up on the pillar two technology aspect of AUKUS increase security?

The share of New Zealand’s total trade with the states that are either AUKUS members or have expressed an interest in joining – Canada, Japan and South Korea – surpasses our trade with China. How much does New Zealand value its credibility with these partners?

Are we expected to believe the AUKUS critics’ preference for taking policy actions that diverge substantially from those partners will serve New Zealand well in the new era of great power rivalry?

AUKUS gives New Zealand agency

AUKUS critics appear to share former defence minister Andrew Little’s sober and accurate 2023 assessment that “we do not live in a benign strategic environment”.

But their critique of AUKUS suggests that they have not rigorously thought through the implications of Little’s statement.

Don Brash recently asked why New Zealand would join AUKUS in any form. The answer is clear.

New Zealand can either take a proactive approach to security and help shape the regional environment through AUKUS membership and a rebooted ANZAC alliance. Or it can adopt a reactive high-risk foreign policy that places New Zealand’s fortunes in the hands of fate.

Nicholas Khoo is Associate Professor of International Politics and Principal Research Fellow, Institute for Indo-Paciifc Affairs (Christchurch), University of Otago.

This artricle was first published on The Conversation.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. One of the worst articles I’ve read on this site (the majority are excellent). MSM, perhaps?

    AUKUS is absolute poison. It will damage our relationship with China who are a massive trading partner, putting us in bed with the USA who only have their own interests at heart, which are based largely on imperialism and control of other nations. Its also a massive waste of public money at a time when almost all our public systems from health to education to infrastructure and welfare need cash injections.

    As for defence, why would anyone want to invade NZ and if they did, could we stop them? Would the overstretched USA who are by their own admission out of weapons (that’s been exhausted in Ukraine) help us? If they did, at what price? Would we be trading one overlord for another? One review of the ease of invading nations rated invading NZ as extremely difficult as its isolated and its geography mountainous (which offers lots of hiding places for resistance too). So in a cost=benefit analysis its a poor choice. By contrast, AU has Indonesia with its huge military more or less right on its doorstep. Its no surprise or eccentricity that the AU SAS are based in Perth. That said again, its miles of desert, heat and distance makes it a tough nut to crack too, so why bother? is the gain, which includes a hostile population, worth the price?

  2. I like the populations of the UK, US and Australia, even if they are dumb enough to vote for the useless leaders they have all had for years. (Same as here really)

    But, I have no desire, and haven’t for years, to have our foreign policy tied to theirs.

    For the last 30 – 35 years their military adventures have mostly been based on lies. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Russia, Ukraine.

    And now with the US and the UK supplying weapons to Israel, months after they were provably committing war crimes, they are complicit with Israels’ disgusting treatment of Palestinians.

    The threat to NZ if we had an independent foreign policy would probably come from them, disguised as another country they would tell us was a threat, IMHO.

    If we join a new ANZUS, we are just hiding behind the bully.

    If we had an independent foreign policy we would have them up about their indiscretions, not blab on about a rules based order that means nothing.

  3. Australia needs to do itself a favour and start making its own nukes. That’s the only language China will understand.

    • China’s not interested in Australia, they have cities almost the size of the whole country. Australia is just playing the alarmist US lapdog, as per usual. Every nations should have nukes to keep the imperialist US/UK hells alliance, at bay.

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