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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 asks simply “Do we really want a war with China?”

Our government seems to have reacted cautiously to the Aukus pact. That’s hardly surprising, given the importance to us of our relationship with Australia. Jason Young of the China Research Centre in Wellington has asked whether Aukus is part of a wider pushback against China or a limited move to strengthen Australia’s defences. Young comments that the question is an important one for New Zealand as we might legitimately feel that our nearest neighbour and only formal ally should be supported in reinforcing its own defences; but that supporting a wider pushback against China is something we would not necessarily want to do. Jason Young’s view, based on the rhetoric coming out of Canberra, is that “unfortunately Aukus is intended to be part of a wider pushback against China”.

Prime Minister Ardern has emphasised that while Aotearoa New Zealand has accepted the concept of an Indo-Pacific region, we regard the Pacific as our home. To the NZIIA annual conference this July, she said:

“Where do we see our place in the world? If you were to ask me I would give you a very literal answer. The Pacific. This is our home. It is the region we most squarely identify with. We very literally share a population base.”

After her speech in July, Jacinda Ardern was asked how important the Indo-Pacific region was to New Zealand. She replied: “When I think of New Zealand and its place in the world, I start with seeing us being anchored in the Pacific”. And when asked what Pacific (Island) leaders think of the Indo-Pacific concept, she said “I would not speak on behalf of other Pacific leaders … that happens too often in our region … All I can present is our perspective and that’s why you will have heard me say we must first and foremost anchor ourselves within the Pacific and then look more broadly beyond it”.

And in a comment clearly taking account of the long and devastating history of nuclear testing and the continuing impact, still, on the health of many Pacific people, Ardern said:

"New Zealand is first and foremost a nation of the Pacific and we view foreign policy through the lens of what is in the best interests of the region.”

Other Pacific leaders have complained about outside powers determining the region’s security future. One is the respected recently retired Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor, who has said:

“I find it so offensive that all of a sudden the region that we all come from is defined by people from great military powers, who have no consideration for the peoples in the region, or our governments in the Pacific …”

Also, I would like to comment on a point Allan Gyngell has made regarding Australia which applies very much to New Zealand, too:

“I worry about the cohesion of our multicultural society in an environment where … China itself becomes identified as an enemy. Some 20% of Chinese Australians have reported being attacked or threatened because of their ethnicity.”

For all these reasons, one has to respect the conclusions of two of the most thoughtful prime ministers Australia and New Zealand have had in recent years.

Paul Keating has emphasised that China has neither articulated nor delivered a direct threat. He has said that Aukus risks dragging Australia into a war with China.

Helen Clark has suggested the failure to include any Asian countries in Aukus “had offended everybody. That’s a club you definitely don’t want to join”.

Finally, we cannot be at all sure how major geopolitical issues in the world today will work out. We do not know how China will pursue its ambitions to be treated as a major power with interests which should be respected. And in the United States, Trump seems to be preparing for another presidential campaign while the New York Times editorialises about “America’s Crumbling Global Position”.

Looking ahead, we have to be prepared and able to navigate a course for Aotearoa New Zealand in much more uncertain and dangerous waters than we have had in the recent past.

Michael Powles was a career diplomat, brought up in Samoa, who led New Zealand posts at the UN and in China, Indonesia and Fiji.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Diplosphere's stance.

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