EDITORIAL: New Zealand needn’t view Aukus as if it’s a treehut the big boys won’t let us into.
The newly formed trilateral co-operation pact involving the United States, United Kingdom and Australia is a major development with unsettling implications.
It’s militaristic in its methodology, marshalling combative forces against the unnamed but plainly envisaged opponent, China.
Australia is getting a leg up to receive nuclear-propelled submarines, and is also expected to offer a base for its allies’ own submarines, some of them potentially nuclear-armed, to receive deep maintenance, thereby maintaining a sustained presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
We weren’t invited to be in this trilateral pact, nor even kept informed that it was coming together – and that’s largely okay. Because we really wouldn’t be a good fit in it.
For starters, one or two New Zealanders would have an issue with us girding our loins against our most important trading partner.
Quite apart from that, there’s a pugnacity of approach in Aukus that doesn’t sit well with the more independent stance that has served New Zealand better. We haven’t always followed where western powers have beckoned, but we have still honourably done our share of heavy lifting in the cause of international stability.
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We are, as we must be, concerned about China’s expansionist international activities in this massive region, not the least of which is its dodgy claims to almost all the South China Sea. Then there’s a shameful record of human rights abuses, and increasingly ugly subjugation of Hong Kong.
But the problem with Aukus is just as Otago University Professor Robert G Patman depicts – it’s adopting “a binary view of the Indo-Pacific in which the future of the region will be determined by a great power contest involving the US and China’’.
This region is not to be confused with a chess board with just two opposing forces, black versus white, and various pieces aligned to one or the other. Mostly as pawns. There are many players and many areas of co-operation, as well as competition.
And to be as independent as we wish in this rather more complex dynamic doesn’t require that we stand in isolation..
We have a perspective that is at least similar to that adopted by the European Union, which is to co-operate with China where we can and team up with like-minded democracies to push back where there are disagreements that require it.
As for trade, the Aussies have infuriated France by pulling out of their submarine deal and in so doing they have done themselves real reputational damage with the EU, which isn't above punishing them for bad faith when it comes to trade deals.
Some international commentators are now wondering whether NZ needs to reassess its more independent settings. We do not.
Some others wonder whether we’re now better set to form trade deals with the EU as well as China because of those settings. And maybe we are.
President Joe Biden slightly undermined the image of goodbuddy unity between the three countries when, upon the announcement of the Aukus pact, he couldn’t for the life of him remember Scott Morrison’s name and resorted to “that fellow from down under’’.
More tellingly, Biden said the partnership would “take on the threats of the 21st century just as we did in the 20th century’’.
Really? 20th century warfare was deeply flawed and should not be seen as the template for resolving global conflict.