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Aukus ‘Opportunity’? New Zealand Must Consider the Impact on Its Strategic Autonomy

In a sign that ambiguity may be creeping into its foreign policy, New Zealand said it was considering a non-nuclear second ‘pillar’ role in the security pact

New Zealand’s surprising announcement that it was considering “an opportunity” to join the Aukus security alliance with the United States, Britain and Australia has rekindled debate over Western powers’ blatant attempt to tamper with peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

New Zealand’s Defence Minister Andrew Little said last week that the country wished to contribute to the development of cutting-edge military technologies – such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and advanced information technology – in the non-nuclear second “pillar” of the three-part Aukus security agreement.

Any participation would be solely in a non-nuclear role due to its legal and ethical obligations to remain nuclear-free.

“We have been offered the opportunity to talk about whether we could or wish to participate in that pillar two aspect of it,” Little told the press. “I’ve indicated we will be willing to explore it.”

This rather perplexing announcement was made just one week after New Zealand’s foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta visited Beijing. There, she met Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang and other high-ranking diplomats who expressed apprehension over the Aukus pact – the focal point being Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.

Apprised of Beijing’s stance on Aukus, Wellington was expected to tread carefully in devising its strategic policy towards the emerging power balance in the Indo-Pacific. But with Little’s recent statement, it appears the New Zealand government is being persuaded by its Western partners to embrace Aukus in one way or another, maybe as a partial member.

Though it is too early to say what prompted Little to make such a statement, one thing is clear. Ambiguity is creeping into the foreign policy of New Zealand, which has until now been hesitant to take a more resolute stance on Aukus.

In contrast to other Anglosphere nations, New Zealand has maintained a comparatively positive relationship with China, its largest trading partner by far. In response to increasing pressure from Western capitals, former prime minister Jacinda Ardern had embraced the Indo-Pacific framing proposed by the US to reorient the Asia-Pacific away from China.

But despite this tilt towards Washington, Ardern did not appear to fully endorse the Western narrative of the “China threat” to the Indo-Pacific, keeping a distance from the American approach on this. New Zealand’s approach was akin to that of the European Union, which had also taken a relatively independent stance towards the Sino-US rivalry. In line with New Zealand’s policy of strategic autonomy, Arden tried to strike a balance between America and China.

When her successor, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, chose to keep Mahuta as the foreign minister, it was expected that foreign policy would remain unchanged. With Hipkins committed to prioritising New Zealand’s economy and preparations for the October 14 general election, he asked Mahuta to take the lead in foreign policy.

Little’s statement suggests that the hawkish elements in Hipkins’ cabinet are now trying to influence the country’s foreign policy.

Since the launch of Aukus, pressure groups inside and outside the government have argued that New Zealand had been sidelined, and somehow rendered weak and defenceless. There have also been assertions that recent Aukus developments may isolate New Zealand – although there is scant support for such apprehensions.

Yet, the converse may be more true. If New Zealand were to become a part of this three-nation alliance, it may not only damage the country’s image as a neutral regional player, but could also undermine its image of maintaining an autonomous foreign policy in the eyes of Indo-Pacific countries.

At the same time, New Zealand’s unique foreign policy approach, particularly towards China, and its long-standing non-nuclear stance may be eroded.

The possibility of New Zealand’s participation in Aukus has generated much debate and discussion among policymakers, experts and the general public alike, with many wondering how the new alliance would affect New Zealand’s standing on the world stage.

The latest developments around the Aukus pact serve as a catalyst for a broader conversation about the role of small nations in the Indo-Pacific, and the importance of maintaining a principled and independent foreign policy.

It is essential for Wellington to recognise the intricate interplay of the various factors and of the stakeholders in the region if it wants to develop a sustainable and rational strategy to navigate the complex dynamics of the Indo-Pacific.

Source : South China Morning Post