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Don’t ‘confuse’ Pacific leaders’ ‘calm’ on AUKUS with support for New Zealand position: expert

US President Joe Biden (second from left), British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (R) and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (L) hold a press conference during the AUKUS summit on March 13, 2023 in Point Loma Naval Base in San Diego, California.  AUKUS is a trilateral security pact announced on September 15, 2021 for the Indo-Pacific region.  (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)


Photo: AFP/JIM WATSON

A Pacific regionalism expert has criticized New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters for withholding information from the public about AUKUS, saying the security agreement “raises serious questions for the Pacific region”.

Auckland University of Technology academic Dr Marco de Jong said Pasifika voices should be included in the debate about whether or not Aotearoa should join AUKUS.

New Zealand is considering joining Pillar 2 of the deal, a non-nuclear option, but critics say this could be seen as approval from Aotearoa for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

On Monday, Peters said New Zealand was “a long way off” from making a decision on participating in Pillar 2 of AUKUS.

He was interrupted by a silent protester holding an anti-AUKUS sign, during a foreign policy speech at an event in Parliament, where Peters spoke about the multinational military alliance.

Peters spent more time attacking critics than outlining a case for joining AUKUS, de Jong said.

Peters told RNZ Morning report the deal was something the government was investigating.

“There are new and interesting things that can help humanity. Our job is to figure out what we’re talking about before we rush to judgment and make all those silly panicked statements.”

According to the UK House of Commons research briefing paper explaining Pillar 2 of AUKUS, Canada, Japan and South Korea are also being considered as “potential partners” alongside New Zealand.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters delivers a speech to the New Zealand China Council amid debate on AUKUS.

Winston Peters
Photo: RNZ / NICK MONRO

Peters said there has not yet been an official invitation to join and says he does not yet know enough information about AUKUS.

However, De Jong maintains that this is not the case.

“According to classified documents, New Zealand has been in talks with the United States about this since 2021. If we don’t know what (AUKUS) is right now, I wonder when we will know.”

The security pact was first considered under the previous Labor government and those investigations continued under the new coalition government.

Former Labor leader and Prime Minister Helen Clark said New Zealand joining AUKUS would jeopardize its relationship with its largest trading partner, China, and said Aotearoa must act as a guardian of the South Pacific.

Shaping Pacific prospects

The Cook Islands, Tonga and Samoa weighed in on the issue during New Zealand’s diplomatic visit to the three nations earlier this year.

At the time, Samoa Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa said: “We do not want the Pacific to be seen as an area where people will give themselves license to make nuclear deals.”

The South Pacific Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (Rarotonga Treaty) prohibits its signatories – which include Australia and New Zealand – from placing nuclear weapons in the South Pacific.

Fiamē said he did not want the Pacific to become a region affected by more nuclear weapons.

However, other Pacific leaders have not taken as strong a stance as Samoa, instead recognizing New Zealand’s “sovereignty” and re-emphasizing commitments to the Blue Pacific partnership.

“I don’t think Winston Peters should confuse Pacific leaders’ reassurance about AUKUS with necessary support for New Zealand’s position,” de Jong said.

“Most Pacific leaders, rather than criticizing New Zealand, will re-emphasize their own commitment to the ideals of the Blue Pacific and a nuclear-free Pacific.”

Minister Peters, who appears to have a good reputation in the Pacific region, has said that it is important to treat smaller nations exactly the same as so-called global foreign superpowers such as the United States, India and China.

When the deal was announced, De Jong said “Pacific leaders felt blindsided.”

“Pacific nations will be asking themselves what foreign partners have for the Pacific, how the region’s framework is consistent with theirs, and what defense funding will mean for diplomacy.”

AUKUS seeks to enhance military capabilities and there will be heavy use of artificial intelligence technology, he said, adding that “the types of things that are being developed are hypersonic weapons, cyber technologies and marine drones.”

“Peters could have explained how New Zealand will contribute to the eight different work streams… there is a lot of information available,” de Jong said.

jong frame

jong frame
Photo: Auckland University of Technology

“They’re linking surveillance drones with targeting systems and missile systems. They’re creating these human machines, teams of next-generation warfare technology.

The intention behind this is to gain next-generation technology that is being tested in the war in Ukraine and Gaza, he said.

De Jong said it was crucial for New Zealand to find out what this was like and how it could affect “instability in the Pacific”.

“Climate change remains the main security threat. It is not clear that AUKUS will do anything to meet climate action or the development of the region.

“It could be creating the instability that it seeks to address by advancing this military approach,” he added.

Legacies of nuclear testing

De Jong said that in the Pacific nuclear issues were closely linked to aspirations for regional self-determination.

“In a region living with the legacy of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, Ma’ohi Nui and Kiribati, there are concerns that AUKUS, along with the Fukushima discharge, has ushered in a new nuclearism.”

He said Australia had sought endorsements to offset regional concerns about AUKUS, particularly at the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting and ANZMIN talks.

“However, it is clear that AUKUS has had a chilling effect on Australia’s support for nuclear disarmament, and Anthony Albanese appears to withdraw Australian support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and the universalization of Rarotonga.

“New Zealand, which is a strong supporter of both agreements, should consider that while Pillar 2 has been described as “non-nuclear”, Pacific peoples are unlikely to find this distinction meaningful, especially if it means taking a step back in that defense.”