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‘Don’t confuse Pacific leaders’ AUKUS rest as support for New Zealand,’ says academic

By Eleisha Foon, RNZ Pacific senior journalist

A Pacific regionalism academic has called out New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters for withholding information from the public about AUKUS, saying the security deal “raises serious questions for the Pacific region”.

Auckland University of Technology academic Dr Marco de Jong said Pasifika voices should be included in the debate over whether Aotearoa should join AUKUS.

New Zealand is considering joining Pillar 2 of the deal, a non-nuclear option, but critics say this could be seen as a sign that Aotearoa is disapproving of Australia’s purchase of nuclear-powered submarines.

New Zealand is considering joining Pillar 2 of the deal, a non-nuclear option, but critics say this could be seen as a sign that Aotearoa is disapproving of Australia’s purchase of nuclear-powered submarines.

On Monday, Peters said New Zealand was “a long way from a decision on whether to participate in Pillar 2 of AUKUS.

He was interrupted by a silent protester holding an anti-AUKUS sign during a foreign policy speech at an event in Parliament, where Peters spoke about the multinational military alliance.

Peters spent more time attacking critics than outlining a case for joining AUKUS, De Jong said.

Investigate the deal
Peters told RNZ Morning report the deal was something the government was exploring.

“There are new exciting things that can help humanity. It’s our job to figure out what we’re talking about before we rush to judgment and make all these silly panicky statements.”

According to the British House of Commons investigative document explaining the second pillar of AUKUS, Canada, Japan and South Korea are also considered “potential partners” in addition to New Zealand.

Peters said there was no official invitation to join yet and claimed he didn’t know enough information about AUKUS yet.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters delivers a speech to the New Zealand China Council amid a debate on AUKUS.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters. . . delivering a speech to the New Zealand China Council amid the debate on AUKUS. Image: RNZ/Nick Monro

Dr. However, de Jong states that this is not the case.

“According to classified documents, New Zealand has been in discussions with the United States about this since 2021. If we don’t know what it (AUKUS) is right now, I wonder when we will?”

The security pact was first discussed under the previous Labor government and those investigations have continued under the new coalition government.

Former Labor leader and Prime Minister Helen Clark said NZ joining AUKUS would jeopardize its relationship with its largest trading partner China and said Aotearoa should act as guardian of the South Pacific.

Profiling Pacific perspectives
The Cook Islands, Tonga and Samoa spoke out on the issue during New Zealand’s diplomatic visit to the three countries earlier this year.

At the time, Samoa’s Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa said: “We don’t want the Pacific to be seen as an area where people will consent to nuclear settlements.”

The South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Rarotonga) prohibits signatories – including Australia and New Zealand – from deploying nuclear weapons in the South Pacific.

Fiamē said she did not want the Pacific to become a region hit by more nuclear weapons.

However, other Pacific leaders have not taken as strong a stance as Samoa, instead recognizing New Zealand’s ‘sovereignty’ while re-emphasizing their commitments to the Blue Pacific partnership.

“I don’t think Winston Peters should confuse Pacific leaders’ calm on AUKUS with necessarily supporting New Zealand’s position,” De Jong said.

“Most Pacific leaders, rather than calling out NZ, will re-emphasize their own commitment to Blue Pacific ideals and a nuclear-weapon-free Pacific.”

Minister Peters, who appears to have a good reputation in the Pacific region, has said it is important to treat smaller countries exactly the same as so-called global foreign superpowers, such as the US, India and China.

Pacific ‘felt blindsided’
When the deal was announced, De Jong said: “The Pacific leaders felt blindsided.”

“Pacific countries will be asking themselves what foreign partners have for the Pacific, how the shape of the region is consistent with theirs and what defense financing will mean for diplomacy.”

AUKUS is trying to improve military capabilities and there will be extensive use of AI technology, he said, adding: “The kinds of things being developed are hypersonic weapons, cyber technologies and naval drones.”

“Peters could have described how New Zealand will contribute to the eight different work streams… there is plenty of information available,” De Jong said.

Marco de Jong
Scientist Dr. Marco de Jong. . . It is critical that New Zealand discovers how this could impact “Pacific instability”. Image: AUT

“They connect surveillance drones to targeting systems and missile systems. It creates these human machines, teams of a new generation of war technology.

The intention behind this is to win the next generation technology being tested in the war in Ukraine and Gaza, he said.

Dr. De Jong said it is crucial that New Zealand finds out how this has affected and could affect “instability in the Pacific”.

“Climate change remains the most important threat to security. It is not clear that AUKUS is doing anything to counter climate action or development in the region.

“It could create the very instability it is trying to address by promoting this military focus,” he added.

Legacies of nuclear testing
Dr. De Jong said nuclear issues in the Pacific are closely linked to the pursuit of regional self-determination.

“In a region living with the legacy of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, Ma’ohi Nui and Kiribati, there are concerns that AUKUS, together with the Fukushima discharge, has ushered in a new nuclearism.”

He said Australia had sought support to address regional concerns about AUKUS, particularly at the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Meeting and the ANZMIN talks.

“However, it is clear that AUKUS has had a chilling effect on Australian support for nuclear disarmament, with Anthony Albanese appearing to withdraw Australian support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and the universalisation of Rarotonga.

“New Zealand, which is a strong supporter of both agreements, should consider that although Pillar 2 has been described as ‘non-nuclear’, Pacific people are unlikely to find this distinction meaningful, especially if it means they must renounce such advocacy. .”

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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