AUKUS: Jacinda Ardern welcomes United Kingdom, United States engagement in Pacific, says NZ nuclear stance 'unchanged'

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is welcoming the "increased engagement of the UK and the US" in the Pacific region as the countries announce a new security pact with Australia.

The AUKUS group was described on Thursday morning by US President Joe Biden as a "historic step to deepen and formalise cooperation among all three of our nations" as they seek to ensure "peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific". 

The pact, which will share information in key technological areas, including artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and regarding nuclear submarines, is being considered by commentators as a counter to China's growing influence in the region, but US officials say it is not aimed at one country. One of the first projects will see collaboration on nuclear-powered submarines for Australia.

New Zealand's Prime Minister has now responded, saying she discussed the arrangement with Australia's Scott Morrison on Wednesday night. 

"Australia’s arrangement with the US and the UK is primarily around technology and defence hardware, with the centrepiece being the purchase of nuclear submarines by Australia," Ardern said.

She said this new group "in no way changes our security and intelligence ties with these three countries, as well as Canada". New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States are members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network. 

"New Zealand is first and foremost a nation of the Pacific and we view foreign policy developments through the lens of what is in the best interest of the region," Ardern said.

"We welcome the increased engagement of the UK and US in the region and reiterate our collective objective needs to be the delivery of peace and stability and the preservation of the international rules based system.

"New Zealand’s position in relation to the prohibition of nuclear powered vessels in our waters remains unchanged."

Jacinda Ardern says there is no change to New Zealand's nuclear stance.
Jacinda Ardern says there is no change to New Zealand's nuclear stance. Photo credit: Getty Images.

However, Judith Collins, National's leader, said the trio of countries forming a partnership without New Zealand "is concerning".

"It's disappointing that after many years of New Zealand’s co-operation with our traditional allies, the current Government appears to have been unable to participate in discussions for 'AUKUS'. It raises serious concerns about the interoperability of New Zealand’s defence force systems with our traditional allies in the future.

"New Zealand is not interested in the nuclear side of the new partnership, but the deeper integration of technology, artificial intelligence and information sharing as well as security and defence-related science, industrial bases and supply chains are areas we would traditionally be involved in."

Collins said New Zealand's nuclear-free stance shouldn't have been a barrier to us joining, while National's Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee, is concerned we could miss out on important intelligence. 

"We need assurance we’re not left out of information streams that counter terrorism.

"Notwithstanding our anti-nuclear position which we haven’t changed, the question the Government needs to answer first and foremost is were we consulted or at the table to discuss with a group of countries that we’ve considered likeminded for quite some time."

He wants the Government to "come clean about what happened here", questioning how the new pact impacts the Five Eyes relationship and our relationship with Australia.

The pact was announced on Thursday morning.
The pact was announced on Thursday morning. Photo credit: White House.

A UK Statement on Thursday said the new agreement "reflects the unique level of trust and cooperation between our three countries, who already share extensive intelligence through the Five Eyes alliance".

Asked if the grouping could be extended to include New Zealand, a senior US administration official said the pact was "complementary to other forms of security and political engagement in the region". 

While one official said the new pact was "not aimed at any one country", it comes as tensions between the trio of countries and China continue to escalate, especially over the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Former Australian Ambassador to the United States Joe Hockey has reportedly called it "ANZUS 2.0", giving "bite" and "teeth" to the Five Eyes. Citing comments from a senior Pentagon official, The Australian newspaper said the pact was a "'new ANZUS' that sidelines New Zealand."

ANZUS is a security agreement signed between Australia, New Zealand and the United States in 1951. The US suspended its obligations to New Zealand in 1986 in the wake of New Zealand declaring a nuclear-free zone and refusing entry to nuclear-powered ships.