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Confused or playing for time?

Author: Robert Patman*

New Zealand governments are actively exploring the possibility of joining second pillar AUKUS company for over a year. But – said Foreign Minister Winston Petersthe government is “far from being able to make such a decision.”

This is puzzling. Strategy, as Prussian general and military strategist Carl von Clausewitz noted, is the process of effectively applying means to achieve clearly defined goals.

The basic goal of the partnership for enhanced security is the so-called AUKUS it was very clear from the beginning: to deter China.

In September 2021, the governments of Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom announced the establishment of AUKUS to strengthen the “rules-based international order” in the Indo-Pacific region to make the region “secure, stable and resilient.”

If the main goal of AUKUS is to counter the perceived threat of China’s growing assertiveness, the means to achieve this goal are also simple: join AUKUS. At first glance, this shouldn’t be a particularly difficult decision. So why is it taking so long?

Winston Peters and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Foreign Minister Winston Peters and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in April: decision “will take time.” Getty Images.

All about China

New Zealand’s non-nuclear security policy excludes participation in the first pillar of AUKUS, which involves the delivery of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.

However, the second pillar envisages sharing cutting-edge defense technologies in areas such as artificial intelligence, hypersonic missiles and cyberwar. In March 2023, the US indicated the door was open to continue talks about New Zealand joining Pillar Two.

Since then, previous and current governments have spoken to AUKUS members to “carefully consider the economic and security benefits and costs of any decision on whether participation in Pillar Two is in the national interest.”

According to Peters, “it’s going to take some time.” However, the government must be fully aware of the main elements of both pillars of AUKUS and its purpose. The assessment of whether the second pillar is in the national interest does not ultimately depend on obtaining more information about possible membership.

Rather, it comes down to whether the government believes it is necessary to balance China’s growing involvement in the Indo-Pacific region and whether it is willing to participate in Pillar Two to help realize this goal.

Why wait?

There are several possible reasons for using a wait-and-see approach.

First, the government’s focus on the pros and cons of Pillar Two membership may be driven by a belief that the technology exchange element is somehow divorced from AUKUS’s overarching goal of countering China, New Zealand’s largest trading partner.

However, it is certainly a mistake to believe that partial membership in AUKUS will provide the government with greater diplomatic room for maneuver than being a full member.

Secondly, the government’s position towards the second pillar could be largely performative. Given New Zealand was given the green light to explore membership options early last year, Wellington may want to be seen as a company that leaves no room for doubt before making a decision.

The potential disadvantages of joining Pillar 2 are well known. This could erase New Zealand’s opposition to nuclear proliferation in the Indo-Pacific region. It may also indicate to ASEAN and Pacific island states that New Zealand’s distinctive regional diplomacy has been displaced by a return to the old Anglosphere orientation.

This, of course, could also antagonize China. At the same time, rejecting AUKUS too quickly may be interpreted by New Zealand’s Five Eyes intelligence partners as an attempt to placate Beijing.

In other words, New Zealand may ultimately decline Pillar 2 membership after a long period of consideration – thus avoiding the appearance of being coerced by Chinese pressure.

Decision time

Finally, the government may be playing the long game to prepare domestic opinion for a momentous change in New Zealand’s foreign policy.

Unlike the previous Labor government, it is clear that the current coalition does enthusiastically connected pillar two to “closer cooperation than ever” with the US.

Winston Peters said there were “compelling reasons” for New Zealand to engage virtually in security arrangements such as AUKUS “when all parties consider it appropriate”. He has he also stated AUKUS has “made a positive contribution” to “peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”

At the heart of the apparent push for Pillar Two membership is the Foreign Secretary’s claim that the international security situation is currently “the worst in memory for anyone involved in politics or foreign affairs today.”

The consequence of this is that New Zealand must seek greater refuge under the protective umbrella of traditional allies.

In any event, any decision regarding Pillar Two must be based on a clear recognition that membership of AUKUS is based on the assumption that China poses the greatest threat to the rules-based international order on which New Zealand depends. If Wellington does not share this view, he must say so without equivocation.Conversation


*Robert G. Patman, Professor of International Relations, University of Otago. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.