It has been interesting to observe reactions to the release of a cluster of national security-related documents by the NZ government last week. They include threat assessments and forecasts, defense capabilities and priorities, and areas requiring upgrades and reform, and much more. Among the issues being considered is one that I have discussed here before, the question of whether NZ, if it is invited to participate, should join “Pillar 2” of the AUKUS agreement between the US, UK and Australia on submarine and related high technology transfers. NZ is not part of the submarine (Pillar 1) component, where the US and UK will begin to rotate nuclear attack submarines through HMAS Sterling outside of Perth in a few years, then help Australia acquire and eventually build nuclear-propelled attack submarines based on US and UK models now in service. Given its non-nuclear status, NZ is not party to that aspect of the agreement although it will eventually benefit from AUKUS submarine patrols off of its Eastern seaboard and EEZ as well as from the improved signals intelligence collection streams these platforms provide to the 5 Eyes intelligence network that NZ is part of through the GCSB electronic intelligence agency.
Pillar 2 is about establishing local high technology defense industry hubs in Australian locations and perhaps NZ. These would focus on developing indigenous and shared quantum computing, cyber security, artificial intelligence and an assortment of signals and technical intelligence capabilities relevant but not limited to submarine warfare and intelligence collection and which could have trickle-down benefits for commercial and other non-military enterprises. These technologies may not be available from other countries, as they a are part of high security collaboration between close military allies. The Australian federal government has already apportioned billions of dollars to several states so that they can engage in Pillar 2-related industrial development, promising to create thousands of jobs and spin-off business opportunities by doing so. Although I do not see why Australian business interests and local governments would want to share the employment and the short-term as well as trickle-down profit benefits of the Pillar 2 pie with non-nuclear NZ, NZ authorities and businesses have expressed an interest in being included in the non-nuclear aspects of the deal.
That is where the reaction in NZ has gotten interesting. Although the specific details of any participation in Pillar 2 have yet to be announced (in fact, everything so far has consisted of vague declarations of interest on the part of the NZ Defense, Intelligence and Security Minister, Andrew Little), there has been a strong pushback from certain sectors of the foreign policy community, including Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, former Prime Minister Helen Clark, and prominent academics such as Robert Patman. They all think that it is a bad idea, and while they offer a variety of reasons, their arguments against NZ participation in AUKUS Phase 2 appear to boil down to three beliefs: 1) trade dependence makes it dangerous to annoy the PRC because of the risk of economic retaliation (since AUKUS is clearly designed to counter Chinese military expansion and influence in the Southern Pacific and beyond); 2) there is moral equivalence between the PRC and US or the PRC is seen as a benign actor when compared to Western imperialists; 3) NZ must remain neutral when it comes to Great Power competition in order to remain “independent” in foreign affairs. All of these assumptions should be tested in any debate about NZ’s potential role in AUKUS Phase 2 (should it eventuate).
Until the specifics of any invitation for NZ to participate in Pillar 2 are outlined in detail, I remain agnostic on the proposition. I can see the benefits but also remain concerned that the nuclear propulsion component of Pillar 1 of the agreement is a violation of the 1997 Treat of Rarotonga that declares the South Pacific to be a nuclear free zone. Contrary to what some may think, the Treaty prohibits not only nuclear weapons but the presence of nuclear power and storage facilities on land as well. That means that AUKUS nuclear maintenance facilities, should they be constructed at HMAS Sterling, will likely be in violation of the Treaty. It appears that by basing the AUKUS subs on an island outside of Perth in Indian Ocean waters, the AUKUS signatories believe that they have circumvented that prohibition, but if one looks at the original maps that are attached to the Treaty declaration one will see that the coastal waters of Western Australia are in it. That means that practically speaking, AUKUS provides a precedent for the forward basing of other nuclear-powered naval vessels in the region, including from the PLAN (e.g. the PRC Navy, but others as well). That augers poorly for the Pacific remaining nuclear-free even if we acknowledge that nuclear submarines, including those that carry nuclear weapons, in all likelihood already transit Southern Pacific waters on a regular basis.
Although arguments by knowledgeable and reasonable people such as Patman are couched in neutral, objective language, there is also an internal political aspect to the discussion. Helen Clark was the PM when NZ signed the first Western bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the PRC, which many NZ trade advocates consider to be the “gold standard” of NZ FTA’s. Clark has a personal stake in that agreement, which was expanded by her successor John Key, so she certainly does not want to see her government’s crowning foreign policy achievement undermined by subsequent Labour governments with different perceptions on international security affairs and the role of the PRC within it. Remember that Clark was very much on the Left of the Labour Party before pragmatic centralism pushed her rightwards once she became PM. Remember also that she eliminated the air combat wing entirely when her government renegaded on the purchase of second-hand F-16s from Pakistan that would have replaced the obsolescent A-4 Skyhawk squadron. At first her government starved the NZDF of resources and delayed replacement of ageing equipment (although it accepted delivery of the completely oversized purchase of 105 LAV wheeled armoured vehicles signed by the previous National government, which then were largely kept in storage, deployed in small numbers and/or damaged in accidents and in operations until recent on-sales to Chile. There are still a few dozen left, most surplus to requirements). In fact, in the early days of her stint as PM, she downplayed the need for robust military forces because, in her infamous words, NZ existed in a “benign strategic environment.” That was before 9/11.
Then things changed. After 9/11 the Clark government saw the opportunity to ingratiate itself to the US (after the freeze in security relations occasioned by the 1984 non-nuclear declaration that ended ANZUS) by offering support for the so-called “War on Terror.” Along with disgraced former SIS Director Richard Wood (now still feeding at the public trough as Chair of the NZ Environmental Management Risk Management Authority (ERMA). He is also Chair of the NZ/France Friendship Fund, a nice sinecure for a former ambassador to Paris and Algiers), Clark was front and centre in orchestrating the malicious framing and railroading of Algerian asylum seeker Ahmed Zaoui as an al-Qaeda linked terrorist. Although Zaoui was less dangerous to NZ that any number of Christchurch skinheads, he was imprisoned in a maximum security prison for several years until a team of dedicated advocacy lawyers proved his innocence, including that the SIS under Woods’s direction and at the Clark government’s behalf had lied and produced false evidence of his alleged crimes (the Vietnam “scouting” trip video being the most ludicrous of them). She also ordered the NZ intelligence community to focus its resources on the anti-jihadist crusade in Aotearoa and elsewhere (which may well have included NZSIS complicity in the US extraordinary rendition and black site operations against suspected al-Qaeda terrorists and supporters, the details of which remain suppressed), and to top things off attempted to use the newly-minted powers of the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA) to arrest and jail the so-called Urewera 18 band of leftists and Maori sovereignty activists (charges were dropped against all but four defendants, and the remaining were convicted of minor weapons charges after years of costly litigation, as had been the case with Zaoui).
Terrorism became the foil for Clark’s turn to security toughness even if the jihadist threat, both before and after 9/11, has been more talk than walk (no Muslim has been involved in an ideologically-motivated violent attack in NZ before or after 9/11. The 2021 supermarket stabber was, as I have written before, a lonely and homesick mentally ill person with a blade fetish and no effective counselling support, not an ideologically committed extremist). Sensing the tenor of the times, Clark dropped her progressivism on both domestic and foreign policy issues and turned rightwards out of political expediency (remember her opposition to cannabis legalisation while in office? She now supports it), thereby setting the stage for a change in NZ’s security perspective and assessment of threats.
At the same time she was polishing her anti-jihadist bonafides on the back of an innocent man and settling scores with pesky activists, she authorised NZDF deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq (even while not formally supporting the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003). Not all of those deployed, shall we say, were NZDF engineers, and those deployments turned into a longer-term engagement in both countries that did not end until the end of the 2010s/early 2020s. In the end both countries reverted to form once the NZDF vacated the premises, leaving as a result 10 dead soldiers, several more wounded, credible accusations of war crimes and a cost of millions of dollars.
The turn towards revitalising ties with Western security partners began with her government. Under her watch NZ negotiated the core of the bilateral Wellington and Washington Agreements on US-NZ defense cooperation (later signed into force by her successors). NZ also deepened its ties within the 5 Eyes signals-technical intelligence network involving Anglophone partners. That makes it pretty rich of her to now claim that NZ has become too ensnared in the 5 Eyes “vice” and has adopted too much of a Western-centric security perspective. In fact, it appears that beyond her obvious hypocrisy, Clark has returned in retirement to her lefty roots in order to burnish her tarnished progressive credentials with certain domestic and foreign audiences. But that does not make her right when it comes to NZ’s national security and contradicts her actions on the security front while in office.
Beyond her personal foibles, the Clark interjections in current NZ security debates is evidence that she clearly is out of the loop when it comes to current NZ intelligence and defence threat assessments, but more importantly, is more proof of a significant fracture within Labour Party circles (the domestic aspects concerning tax policy and other issues having already become public). For example, Foreign Minister Mahuta has been demoted within Cabinet and appears increasingly confined to ceremonial roles rather than substantive engagement with foreign policy formulation. Minister Little has clearly assumed a dominant role in foreign policy decision-making as well as in security affairs, having repeatedly stated that NZ “no longer operates in a benign strategic environment” in a pointed message for Clark to pull her head in (and to be sure, the rightward drift in Labour after Jacinda Ardern’s tenure as PM is palpable this election year).
He, of course, is objectively correct on that score. NZ has to adapt its strategic posture to the times, and these times are not those extant during Clark’s tenure as PM. She and like-minded others need to stop living in the past, clinging to outdated notions of foreign policy “independence,” and treating the PRC as a benign global actor. As I have written before, NZ operates with bounded autonomy in our foreign affairs, something that gives it flexibility but which does not allow it complete freedom of choice or action when it comes to things like Great Power competition. But for NZ to be flexible in light of existing constraints, it must clear-eyed about what is and what is not in its medium to long-term interests. That is because in these fluid transitional times re-shaping the increasingly multipolar global order, trade opportunism is just a short-term solution, especially when it runs counter to longer-term international security trends.
If I were to be charitable, I would simply say that Clark and her fellow travellers need to understand that the PRC of 2008, when the FTA was negotiated, no longer exists. Gone is the relative openness and transparency of the CCP regime led by Hu Jintao and in its wake has risen the repressive and expansionist regime led by Xi Jinping. Clark and others may wax nostalgic for a past where the PRC would adopt liberal internationalist principles when it comes to foreign affairs and join the community of nations as a democratising Great Power, but that sadly has not happened. Instead, Xi has consolidated his grip on power, increased authoritarian powers against civil society, moved to culturally extinguish restive minorities like the Uyghurs, and de facto annexed Hong Kong while sabre-rattling against Taiwan and usurping the maritime territory of its littoral neighbours around the South China Sea. All while expanding its military capabilities (including its nuclear arsenal) and conducting global political influence (United Front) and espionage campaigns that include large-scale as well as focused cyber intrusions, intimidation of diaspora populations and industrial-size patent and copyright theft. That in turn has reconfigured the threat environment in which NZ is situated. The recently released package of NZ security documents pointedly make reference to these facts, among other things.
Even if we agree that rising Great Powers like the PRC have to do what they have to do when it comes to expanding their power, and recognising that Western countries have done similar things and worse well up to the recent past, it is nevertheless clear that the PRC is not operating as good international partner on all fronts, and that its behaviour is very much inimical to the rules-based order that NZ professes to uphold in the international system. In fact, the PRC under President Xi explicitly rejects the premise of liberal internationalism citing, perhaps at least partially correctly, that the international institutional status quo was built by and for Western imperial and neo-imperial powers and their allies, not for the Global South.
In that light AUKUS may not be the solution to the changes in the South Pacific strategic landscape and in fact it might make things worse if it serves as a precedent for the erosion of its non-nuclear status and catalyst for further militarisation of the region. But resorting to knee-jerk objections based on a rosy vision of some ethereal past does not help advance the debate about where should NZ situate itself in the equation and what moral, ethical, and practical utility AUKUS rests upon, especially since as far as the AUKUS partners are concerned, it is a fait accompli whether NZ is involved or not.
In that light, assessments and arguments based on nostalgia for a benign strategic past where issue-linkage could be abandoned and trade and security could be decoupled now seems naive at best and foolhardy at worst. But then again, I do not have skin in the game when it comes to past foreign policy decisions that have, in a path-dependent way, led us to where we are today.