The agreement seems to bring more discord than alliances between liberal democracies.
Written by Lucas Leiroz, research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Many controversies have arisen in recent days because of the new anti-China alliance formed by Washington, London, and Canberra, the AUKUS. Tensions have been developed between Australia and France, for example – and the entire European Union seems quite unhappy with the measure. However, beyond these facts, one point that has been ignored by many analysts is the New Zealand situation. A large part of the country’s political society felt excluded from the agreement, which has generated revolt against nations until then considered partners. Apparently, AUKUS has generated more frictions and tensions within the liberal world itself than with China.
Australia and New Zealand are nations that share a close historical past, as well as the same state ideology and have similar geopolitical goals. However, none of these factors were taken into account by Washington or London, when they chose only Australia as a partner to form a new military alliance in the Pacific. In this sense, the Western “preference” for Australia has generated indignation in the New Zealand’s government, which has been trying for years to get closer and closer to its historical Western partners, without receiving any “reward” for this effort.
Recently, amid rising tensions between the West and China, New Zealand has taken part in favor of its traditional allies and has toughened measures against China. Wellington has repeatedly viewed China as a threat to the international legal order, taking strict measures against the Asian country’s expansion, including Huawei’s ban on the New Zealand 5G market – citing “security concerns” as a justification (adopting the conspiratorial discourse that the Chinese company would be spying on countries that allow its activities).
The country has also signed several international documents condemning Beijing’s policy on Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and various other internal affairs in China. In addition, New Zealand has repeatedly accused China of attacking the West cybernetically. In every possible way, the country tries to endorse Western discourses and expects its partners to give it something in return – such as guaranteeing security, improving economic partnerships, among other benefits. But the lack of a return has been extremely worrying for Wellington.
New Zealand’s expectations consisted of a very simple point: elevating the existing partnerships to an advanced military status, improving the security policy of pro-Western democracies in a zone of constant Chinese expansion. To that end, there was strong pressure for a reform in the 5 Eyes group, which brings together the five English-speaking economic powers (US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand) in an information-sharing alliance. Currently, the 5 Eyes group works only in intelligence operations and data collection, not maintaining active military programs. The nations of Oceania are extremely important to this intelligence strategy.
Australia, for example, has for years been identified by China as a base of Western spies. However, in a context of militarization of the Pacific and growth of a confrontational policy against China, it seemed interesting to member nations to invest in a military escalation of the existing alliance, which, as we know, did not happen. Washington and London decided to simply “cut” the part that interested them from the 5 Eyes and form a new group.
Canada’s absence from the AUKUS is simple to understand, considering the geographic distance from the focus of tensions in Asia-Pacific. Also, Canadian foreign policy decisions are basically taken in Washington, so the country participates in the alliance enjoying the protection guaranteed by the US. The same cannot be said for New Zealand, whose location in the Pacific leaves the country in a vulnerable situation. One factor that explains why New Zealand was excluded from the deal is the country’s strong anti-nuclear policy.
Wellington has maintained an extremely rigorous anti-nuclear legislation since the 1980s, which would not allow the country to receive nuclear-powered submarines, as Australia is about to receive. In fact, the interest of the New Zealand government in participating in the AUKUS would be much more towards enjoying the protection of a foreign military apparatus in the Pacific than towards contributing to this program. The country would not accept changing its laws on the nuclear issue and would refuse the presence of nuclear submarines on its coast but would accept that these same submarines circulated along the Pacific in order to prevent the presence of Chinese military vessels.
Now, New Zealand is in a scenario that gives it two options: abdicate the policy of automatic alignment with Washington and take a more neutral stance towards China or seek to form its own security alliances. Considering that Europe is also extremely dissatisfied with the formation of the AUKUS, it is possible that New Zealand and the EU will gradually move closer towards building a security-guaranteeing alliance, but this conceivable alliance is unlikely to materialize in military programs – at least in the current moment.
The interest in confronting China comes from Washington (and London, which maintains solid ties with its former colony), not being unanimous in the Western world. The US invests in hurting China simply because Chinese expansion is the biggest threat to American global power, which does not correspond to the reality of Europe and any other liberal democracy. So, in the near future, relations between New Zealand and Europe are likely to expand, including in military trade and information sharing, without, however, generating real military operations.
In practice, not being part of AUKUS will be very profitable for New Zealand’s security. The current condition allows the country to both pacify relations with China and strengthen ties with Europe and prevents Wellington from becoming the target of tensions as Australia has become.
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