AUKUS Defence Pact: New Zealand's exclusion reflects our 'friend, not ally' status with the US

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New Zealand and the United States are friends, not allies. That’s reflected in our exclusion from a new security pact. National Correspondent Lucy Craymer reports.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta have, in recent months, taken turns to emphasise the country’s independent foreign policy. Mahuta went so far as to say that the country was uncomfortable with an expanding remit of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, of which New Zealand remains a member.

On Thursday, three of those five eyes – Australia, the United Kingdom and the US – unveiled a new defence pact of their own. AUKUS extends nuclear submarine technology to Australia in a bid to counter China’s rising power. New Zealand was not included, and apparently only learnt of the agreement around the same time press reports began emerging on Wednesday evening.

On its own, the exclusion cannot be interpreted as a signal of a worsening relationship. But it does underscore New Zealand’s delicately poised diplomatic footing between its traditional Western partners and China.

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Van Jackson,​ a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University says the country’s relationship with the US remains positive and that the new alliance is not a “revolutionary change in either the region or relationships.”

“The US is fine with having good relations with New Zealand but within Five Eyes there’s been this UK, Australia and US sort of mini squad or whatever for a couple of years and that actually has to do with the fact that all three countries had conservative administrations,” says Jackson who worked in the office of the Secretary of Defence during the Obama administration.

However, he says more concerning is that New Zealand seemingly did not know about the new strategic alliance prior to press reports. “This is not what you want for New Zealand,” he says.

New Zealand has not been an official ally of the US since being suspended from ANZUS, so it does not have the same obligations to defend or share intelligence (their own or others). But at the same time, New Zealand remains a member of the security grouping the Five Eyes.

President Joe Biden speaks about a national security initiative from the East Room of the White House in Washington.

Andrew Harnik/AP

President Joe Biden speaks about a national security initiative from the East Room of the White House in Washington.

“US-New Zealand relations, particularly on the defence side, are probably at a post-1980s high,” says Alexander Gray​, Senior Fellow in National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council. “That being said, the US-Australia relationship has a far more robust and developed defence component, and that has been nurtured by Iraq and Afghanistan and now this announcement just confirms it.”

The difference between the NZ-US and Australia-US relationship was highlighted by recent speeches by the US Secretary of State and US Secretary of Defence on the 70th anniversary of the signing of ANZUS. Neither mentioned New Zealand’s role as founding member or New Zealand’s involvement in Afghanistan, but were strongly complimentary of Australia. Wellington also failed to mark the occasion.

To many this is unsurprising: the country has been suspended from the pact for longer than it was included.

The US decision to drop its ANZUS obligations to New Zealand came after a decision in the 1980s​ to ban visits by nuclear armed or propelled vessels to our country’s ports. Relationships were frosty over the following two decades. The signing of the Wellington Declaration in 2010 ​cemented improved relations between the two countries.

A resolution to the US Senate last month did, however, note New Zealand contributions and US Senator Jim Risch​ said in a statement that the US looked forward to strengthening security collaboration among the United States, Australia, and New Zealand in the years ahead.

New Zealand’s exclusion from a multi country meeting on Afghanistan is being played down by officials. The US Embassy in Wellington notes that that meeting came together quickly and New Zealand participates in a regular weekly – or even twice weekly – meeting of allies about Afghanistan.

President Joe Biden, joined virtually by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, right on screen, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as they announce a new strategic pact.

Andrew Harnik

President Joe Biden, joined virtually by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, right on screen, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as they announce a new strategic pact.

Mike Green,​ senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies​ in the US, says New Zealand’s relationship with the US remains largely warm.

“There are the occasional grumblings in Washington that New Zealand positions itself as the bridge to China and is always the first to cut trade deals,“ he says. “There are also grumblings in Washington and Canberra that it sells itself too cheaply to China on occasion.”

Green says, however, it’s not surprising that New Zealand and Canada – the fifth member of Five Eyes – was not included, as neither has any interest in nuclear-powered attack submarines.

While Australia is increasingly more aligned with the US, speaking up about concerns over China’s behaviour, New Zealand’s approach is much softer. The Ardern Government has raised concerns about China’s policy towards Uyghur people, its behaviour towards its neighbours in the South China Sea, and the crackdown on the democratic movement. However, at times it has chosen not to be part of statements condemning the country’s actions.

“I think of this AUKUS announcement as one more piece of an eclectic architecture of alliances and partnerships to counter Chinese hegemonic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific and maintain stability,” Green says. “The US-New Zealand relationship, which has broadened in recent years, is another piece defined on its own terms.”