AUKUS's impact on New Zealand: Nuclear policy 'unchanged', Five Eyes 'will endure' in face of new defence pact

As three of New Zealand's traditional allies announced a new defence pact on Thursday, Aotearoa's nuclear-free stance was back in the spotlight as a central pillar to our nation's identity.

New Zealand's absence from the new AUKUS pact - made up of some of our closest partners with a focus on the Indo-Pacific - raised some eyebrows here and overseas. Claims of Aotearoa being side-lined have been used by some to add to a narrative perpetuated earlier this year that it was on the outer of the Five Eyes group due to its relationship with China.

Geoffrey Miller, an international analyst with Victoria University's Democracy Project, said the new deal was a "landmark event" which may indirectly affect New Zealand. But he was in no way surprised New Zealand wasn't part of the group. 

"It seems to largely focus on getting Australian nuclear-powered submarines, and of course, New Zealand, with its nuclear-free status, just would never be part of an agreement like that," he told Newshub.

The deal, revealed by the Australian, US and UK leaders on Thursday morning, will see the three nations share information on technology - like nuclear-power submarines and artificial intelligence - and formalise cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. 

That's a region under focus at the moment due to China's rising dominance and actions in the South China Sea and towards Taiwan. The agreement between the trio - all countries that have seen tensions rise significantly with China over the last year - is being seen by commentators as a counter to the Middle Kingdom's growth.

The first major project being put forward under the AUKUS banner will be a collaboration on nuclear-powered, but conventionally armed, subs for the Royal Australian Navy. 

That was keenly noted by Kiwis due to our nuclear-free stance. No ships "whose propulsion is wholly or partly dependent on nuclear power" are allowed into our waters. 

"I'm not surprised at all that New Zealand is not part of [AUKUS]," Miller said. "I think New Zealand has got very different interests to the three countries in this grouping and very different interests with Australia". 

"To me, the nuclear submarines and this deal just underline that really. When you read all this stuff about nuclear submarines, it just seems so far away from where New Zealand's at. This really seems to be a different league to where New Zealand operates and where New Zealand wants to operate."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made that crystal-clear in remarks on Thursday afternoon. She said New Zealand wasn't approached to be part of AUKUS, but our nuclear position meant that was no surprise.

"The centrepiece of this arrangement is the building of nuclear-powered submarines to be based out of Australia, and Prime Minister Morrison and indeed all partners are very well versed and understand our position on nuclear-powered vessels and also nuclear weapons," Ardern said.

"That, of course, means that they've well understood our likely position on the establishment of nuclear-powered submarines."

She said our position "in relation to the prohibition of nuclear-powered vessels in our waters remains unchanged."

Ardern said our position "in relation to the prohibition of nuclear-powered vessels in our waters remains unchanged."
Ardern said our position "in relation to the prohibition of nuclear-powered vessels in our waters remains unchanged." Photo credit: Getty Images.

Speaking to Newshub on Thursday morning, Alexander Gillespie, an international law professor at the University of Waikato, said his initial reaction to the pact was "Where's New Zealand". 

"New Zealand has a good relationship with America, with Britain, and Australia, and we've just passed the 70th anniversary of ANZUS, and yet, this new development has not included us," he said.

"Even though New Zealand's not in it, neither our allies are like-minded friends like Canada or France or Germany, and to a degree, even Japan and India. It's a very select few, but New Zealand, always been part of that select few."

He did note that the "way that this arrangement was being orchestrated towards military aid and military systems and military budgets" didn't match "New Zealand's model".

The National Party's Judith Collins raised concerns on Thursday about New Zealand's absence, saying that Aotearoa's nuclear stance shouldn't have stopped us from joining the overall partnership.

"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," she said.

"New Zealand’s strong nuclear-free stance shouldn’t have been a barrier to us joining such a partnership. We could have been carved out of the nuclear aspect of the partnership."

But Ardern said that would have looked a lot like our membership to the current Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network.

Judith Collins said New Zealand's absence was concerning.
Judith Collins said New Zealand's absence was concerning. Photo credit: Newshub.

Five Eyes

Asked if she was concerned this new pact may supplant the Five Eyes - made up of New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom - Ardern said she wasn't. 

"This is not a treaty level arrangement. It does not change our existing relationships, including Five Eyes or our close partnership with Australia on defence matters,"she said.

"I was advised of this proposal on the same day as Australia's Cabinet. We stay in close touch on matters of importance to both of us."

The Prime Minister said it was "not unusual for countries to have a range of different security or defence partnerships" and the new pact "is not at the level for instance of our existing partnership that includes the United States, the UK, Australia and Canada".

"This does not diminish the existence of that arrangement."

While Miller said the fact a new pact had been developed was interesting - there had been chatter the Five Eyes could expand or more emphasis could be on the QUAD - he believed the "Five Eyes will endure".

"I think the US gets a lot of benefit from the intelligence New Zealand provides, particularly the Pacific," he said. "New Zealand gets a lot of benefits from the intelligence that the other countries in the alliance provide."

"It's clear that the Five Eyes is not going to be the top division, but I think that was always unlikely that it would be upgraded into some bigger vehicle."

New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta expressed discomfort earlier this year with expanding the Five Eyes' remit to comment on human rights issues. That came as China came under increasing pressure from other Western nations over issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Mahuta's comments led to backlash overseas from prominent politicians and speculation arose of chilly relations between New Zealand and its Five Eyes partners. That was mostly overblown, however, with Newshub understanding our partners didn't express any unease to New Zealand in earlier conversations. Ardern also reiterated our commitment to Five Eyes.

Nanaia Mahuta and Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne earlier this year.
Nanaia Mahuta and Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne earlier this year. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Miller told Newshub if the other Five Eyes member, Canada, had been part of the AUKUS, then it may have suggested New Zealand was on the outer. But that's not the case. 

"Canada and New Zealand both share similarities and positioning regarding China, which is more balanced than those other three. So it's perhaps not a surprise, and that maybe softens the blow somewhat. The fact that it's both Canada and New Zealand not being included."

He said AUKUS appeared to be three close allies formalising their alliance. 

"I think most New Zealanders would probably say good luck to them, but it's not really where we are at these days."

Speaking to the Australian Financial Review, Brent Sadler, a senior fellow for Naval Warfare and Advanced Technology at the Heritage Foundation, said New Zealand has to deal with the consequences of being independent. 

"China loves to jump on any sort of split or friction between our allies and drive them apart. New Zealand not being part of that does provide an unnecessary seam."

Miller didn't expect China would be happy with the new pact, something its Washington Embassy made clear on Thursday morning, accusing the nations of a "Cold War mentality". 

"They don't like these alliances," Miller said. "They will feel encircled."

With a colossal trading relationship with China, New Zealand has long been careful with its actions, hoping not to provoke the economic heavyweight. 

"New Zealand wants to be good friends with everybody," Miller said. "It's very much been the New Zealand foreign policy position for decades now, to have friends everywhere as a small trading nation at the bottom of the world. 

"New Zealand's come under a lot of pressure this year to shift its position more to the Western position. But so far, New Zealand's been fairly successful in resisting that,

"I think now New Zealanders are largely quite comfortable with the foreign policy. I think New Zealand has forged a new direction and that's quite different from the likes of Australia and the US from Britain. I think New Zealand is very comfortable in its own skin now. This alliance to me just seems like in another league compared with New Zealand."

Ardern said New Zealand's "lens will always be from that of a Pacific nation" wanting peace, stability and a rules-based order. But she said that didn't "diminish the role we have to play" globally.

Ardern welcomed the UK and US's engagement in the region.

"I am pleased to say that the eye has been tuned to our region from partners that we work closely with, because, of course, this is a contested region, there is a role that others can play in taking an interest in our region, but the lens we'll look at this from will include stability."