New Zealand has 'no plans for AUKUS at this point in time' - Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni

The Deputy Prime Minister has reiterated New Zealand has no plans to become a first-tier member of a defence alliance between Australia, the UK and the US (AUKUS).

Carmel Sepuloni has just returned from a five-day, 50-person mission to the Pacific in her first big trip as Deputy PM and Associate Foreign Affairs Minister.

Earlier this week, Sepuloni downplayed the matter of China-West tensions over Beijing's growing influence in the Pacific. 

She reiterated to Newshub Nation on Saturday discussions about China weren't the primary focus of her trip. 

"All of our Pacific nations and neighbours are sovereign nations so they can have relationships, of course, with whoever they choose to in terms of partnerships with other countries," Sepuloni told host Rebecca Wright. 

New Zealand was one of those partners - and a key one at that, Sepuloni said.

But, she admitted, there was a disconnect during the COVID-19 pandemic when officials couldn't travel to the Pacific.

"I think we've got a very strong relationship in the region and that's certainly how we felt when we were welcomed by all of the Pacific countries [this week]."

Her main concern during the trip was building "on the depth and breadth of our relationship".

"There is a depth to the relationship that Aotearoa has with Pacific nations that is very hard for other countries to match because of our history and our whakapapa and our cultural connection."

Carmel Sepuloni.
Carmel Sepuloni. Photo credit: Newshub Nation.

The relationship was a point of difference from other countries, she said.

"We were there to make announcements on [the] funding we were investing into the Pacific and so conversations with Pacific leaders about other countries' investments was not something that was on the table," Sepuloni said when asked about China's recent investment of a multi-million dollar stadium in the Solomon Islands. 

Sepuloni did not discuss China while she was in the Pacific this week, she said.

She did, however, discuss AUKUS.

Last month, Defence Minister Andrew Little confirmed Washington had raised the possibility of New Zealand becoming a non-nuclear partner of AUKUS.  

Sepuloni said AUKUS was discussed during the Pacific trip after the media raised questions about the matter.

Australia, the US and the UK were trusted partners of New Zealand, she reiterated.

With that in mind, however, there was "a little bit of nervousness whenever the world 'nuclear' gets mentioned", Sepuloni said.

"I think that we've ruled out, of course, the tier one involvement [in AUKUS] - which includes the nuclear issue. [There's] no consideration at this stage or decisions have been taken on whether we join at another level - perhaps the information-sharing tier or capacity-building tier - we actually haven't had those discussions.

"We have no plan for AUKUS at this point in time and so it'd be premature of me to speak to that," Sepuloni added.

Many Pacific nations had shared challenges with New Zealand and "we have to be working absolutely in collaboration in response to those", she said.

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