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AUKUS: What's All the Fuss About?

By Michael Powles

AUKUS: What’s All the Fuss About?

1 November 2021

Kia ora tatou

“What’s all the fuss about?” I’d be inclined to answer: “What fuss?”

New Zealanders are concerned about Covid, of course, and about such important issues as how the All Blacks and Black Caps, get on overseas. But AUKUS? It was probably assumed something had happened to one of the orca pods which live in our waters.

On the political right, there was some unrealistic disappointment that Aotearoa New Zealand was not invited to be a participant in the new Aukus pact. But it’s accepted that that would be a breach of the spirit and quite possibly the letter of our anti-nuclear legislation - legislation which is still widely supported in New Zealand.

On the political left, some have expressed concern over the increase the pact will bring to the militarisation of the Asia Pacific part of the Indo-Pacific region, the pact’s nuclear aspects, and the wisdom of risking a military confrontation with China.

There is not enough time to examine these contrasting views adequately. Instead, I’d like to make some quick comments on aspects of the debate. Hopefully that will provoke some discussion later.

Of course, short answer by many to the question we’re posed (“What’s all the fuss about?”) would be simply: “The China threat.” But there has been little public debate on what this actually means and whether it really exists.

Indirectly relevant are two aspects of Chinese government behaviour which are said to indicate threatening intent. First, there is the widely criticised treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, involving gross human rights violations. And then there is the extraordinary practice of aggressive, assertive diplomacy by the Chinese government, called appropriately “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy”. However, quite recently Xi Jinping may have ordered a change of course, calling publicly for the presentation of an image of a “credible, loveable and respectable China”.

But does China actually pose a threat that is imminent enough to justify the real risk of war that would go with trying to contain a powerful country, a country that adamantly refuses to be contained, and instead is determined to be treated as a new superpower?

Several respected observers emphatically believe it does not. The Australian, Professor Hugh White, has said that attempts to confront and contain China just won’t work. And the American, Fareed Zakaria of CNN has written that the US should recognise that traditional power politics and interdependence can constrain China. He writes, “This approach will certainly prove far more complicated to implement than scaremongering and chest-thumping, but it is precisely the one that is likely to keep the world at peace …”

This non-confrontational approach doesn't seem to be favoured much in Washington or Canberra at present. But the US Trade Representative has spoken recently of “durable coexistence” with China. And there seems to be significant support for that approach on the part of our Asian neighbours to the north - countries of course which are much closer physically and historically to China than we are.

One of our most respected commentators here in Wellington is Terence O’Brien who unfortunately isn’t able to be with us today. Terence has spoken many times about the importance of our listening to the views of Southeast Asian neighbours in relation to China, given their long histories of dealing with China. Inevitably, there are differing views in the region. But two countries whose views we value, Indonesia and Malaysia, issued a joint statement expressing “concern and disturbance” over Aukus. And Singapore’s Foreign Minister has said that while Southeast Asians did not want to take sides, they respected China’s wish to be treated as an equal superpower.

I don’t believe that taking this line means doing whatever China says, but it does mean avoiding what has been called Washington’s policy of “trying to push back China by threatening war”.

Presumably the West would not provoke a nuclear war without first assessing that it would be likely to win that war. However, we see few signs that that has been done and agreed. Observers like Hugh White have emphasised that a United States victory in any conflict with China cannot be assured. White maintains that the Australian government underestimates the task of containing China. And he