New Zealand 'actively looking' for ways to participate in controversial AUKUS pact - Government briefing

Story by Phil Pennington of RNZ

New Zealand is "actively looking" for ways to participate in the controversial AUKUS pact, where work is already underway into putting AI into submarine-hunting planes and radar into deep space for military targeting, according to a newly released government briefing.

The first briefing to the new government on AUKUS Pillar Two shows growing enthusiasm for a deal with AUKUS Pillar One partners the US, Australia and the UK.

It stresses the economic and political benefits, rather than the costs of signing up to a pact that is central to the US's race with China to deploy advanced military technologies.

Minister of Defence Judith Collins told RNZ she had talked about the opportunities, "especially around technology", with US Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security earlier this month.

"I think there may well be opportunities for us ... we're exploring all those angles," Collins said.

Critics say New Zealand risks taking a more hawkish stance against China. Proponents say Pillar Two is a geopolitical game-changer in the world's most hotly contested lndo-Pacific region.

Government security and foreign affairs ministers from China and the UK have just been in New Zealand and Australia for top level meetings.

The briefing to Collins and Foreign Minister Winston Peters came just before they met their Australian counterparts last month.

"We are actively looking for ways in which New Zealand can participate in Pillar Two, particularly in those areas where New Zealand can make a material contribution," it said.

"We expect to take a formal decision on participation at some point this year."

Last week, overseas media quoted unnamed officials saying the US was looking to hurry and sign up new Pillar Two partners amid uncertainties around a possibly isolationist Trump White House, with Canada and Japan to the fore.

The briefing, while heavily blanked out, gives more clues to what is at stake for New Zealand.

"'Our approach to AUKUS is particularly important in terms of how we manage our relationships," it said.

"New Zealand's approach to AUKUS is an important part of our foreign policy settings."

AUKUS aligned with New Zealand's "national interest".

How closely New Zealand's intelligence and security sector aligns its interests with the country's Five Eyes partners was newly demonstrated in last week's revelations about secret foreign spy operations hosted for years by the GCSB in Wellington, without the government knowing.

On the economic front, "Pillar Two may create potential openings for collaboration with the New Zealand defence industry and adjacent technology companies", it said.

"The Pillar Two trials to date have involved defence and technology firms from all three AUKUS partners ... there may be future opportunities for New Zealand firms."

It noted the pact has given Australia's defence industry preferential access to the US.

The pact's "progress" included work to add artificial intelligence to submarine-hunting Poseidon P-8A maritime patrol planes. New Zealand has just spent $1.3 billion on four new Poseidons (though Defence papers reveal it lacks enough mechanics to service them, after a lot of workforce resignations).

Other work was going on into Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability that will include Australia having a new ground site. New Zealand is a partner already in a US military satellite system, and recently coughed up extra millions to expand it.

This extends Pillar Two into outer space, where the US has been stoking fears that China and Russia are making big military advances.

The briefing makes clear the pact addresses the need to harness commercial industry to support "increasing technological needs" for defence. Rocket Lab that runs launches at Mahia and in the US, has been doing this, through many contracts with the Pentagon.

The New York Times this month ran a story titled 'Why More American Weapons Will Soon Be Made Outside America', detailing how Australia is on the verge of making shells and guided missiles alongside American firms.

Earlier, briefings to the previous Labour-led government, also released under the OIA, sounded similar themes: "There are likely to be significant opportunities to develop other planned capabilities through future cooperation with AUKUS development programmes," said one in 2021.

From a 2023 dialogue paper with the US: "The US relationship is fundamental to our national security … As the international situation becomes more complex and unstable, it is in New Zealand's interests to maintain this close and trusted relationship."

Briefings showed that last year the public messaging was "recalibrated" to stress that New Zealand agreed with the rationale for setting up AUKUS, that the region was getting scarier.

New Zealand told the US in October: "We are acutely aware that the environment in the Pacific has changed."

It noted the "high tempo of engagements across our [NZ-US] systems".

Previous Prime Minister Chris Hipkins characterised this as being "clear-eyed" about the region's security challenges.

His government issued a defence policy and strategy statement in 2023 that said:

"The wider Indo-Pacific is now the central global theatre for strategic competition. Indo-Pacific states are rapidly investing in their military and security capabilities in response to the range of security challenges they are facing.

"Intensifying strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific is increasing the potential for confrontation and means conflict could occur, potentially with little warning."

Now, however, theLabour Party has said AUKUS Pillar Two is all about containment of China and questions if joining would be wise.

The OIA briefing from January said there remained "gaps in our understanding" of Pillar Two and talks continued.