Is AUKUS the end of New Zealand foreign and defence policy bipartisanism? Should we worry?

Line of Defence Magazine - Update

US President Joe Biden, UK PM Rishi Sunak and Australian PM Anthony Albanese at an AUKUS meeting in San Diego on 13 March 2023. Image: US Secretary of Defense.

With the Luxon Government signalling potential membership of AUKUS Pillar Two and the opposition Labour Party branding the partnership an anti-China “offensive warfighting alliance”, our turbulent strategic waters are about to get muddy, writes Nicholas Dynon.

New Zealand’s Labour Party opposition is “walking back” its openness to joining Pillar Two of the AUKUS military pact, according to a Radio New Zealand report published Monday.

Although the Labour Party is yet to finalise its position on AUKUS, reported RNZ, its associate foreign affairs spokesperson Phil Twyford called it an “offensive warfighting alliance against China”.

“We’re not convinced we should be positioning China as a foe” and should not fall into a “trap taking a binary position that it’s either the US or China,” Labour Party Foreign Affairs Spokesperson David Parker told RNZ last Friday.

The news comes just days after 01 February’s inaugural ANZMIN 2+2 meeting of Australia and New Zealand’s foreign and defence ministers, which produced a joint statement highlighting that “AUKUS made a positive contribution toward maintaining peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific”.

Placing Beijing squarely in its sights, the joint statement expressed “serious concerns” in relation to “destabilising activities” in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and “grave” and “deep concerns” in relation to human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong respectively.

With the ink still drying on the statement, China’s embassy in Wellington fired off a scathing rebuke that lambasted AUKUS as a “stark manifestation of Cold War mentality” that “will undermine peace and stability, [and] sow division and confrontation in the region”.

Prime Minister Luxon, Foreign Minister Peters, and Defence Minister Collins. Image: LinkedIn.

Reading the pre-election signs

Prior to its defeat at last year’s national election, the Labour Party had stated it was “willing to explore” participating in Pillar Two, but there are divergent views on just how prepared the Hipkins Labour government was to consider membership.

According to defence analyst Tim Fish, successive Labour prime ministers Jacinda Ardern and Hipkins “were tentative at best” about Pillar Two membership.”

“There had been mixed messaging from senior cabinet ministers about its value for New Zealand as a Pacific regional player, and during the televised leadership debates in the lead-up to the election Hipkins had stated he “preferred other arrangements” to AUKUS,” wrote Fish in an article in Breaking Defence.

Yet the then defence minister Andrew Little said at the time that the government was “willing to explore” participating in Pillar Two.

The National Party and the two parties that would join it in coalition government after the election – the ACT Party and New Zealand First – all indicated relatively supportive positions on the question of potential Pillar Two membership.

“… if recent ministerial statements and parliamentary rhetoric are anything to go by, it appears that the days of bipartisanism in Wellington on China may well be coming to an end. If that’s the case, there are deep ramifications.”

National Party leader – and now prime minister – Chris Luxon had stated in pre-election mode that he would “explore” joining Pillar 2, and ACT Party Leader David Seymour stated that he would pursue it.

In a pre-election opinion piece in Line of Defence Magazine, the then ACT Party Defence Spokesperson James McDowall went so far as to characterise the side-lining of New Zealand in the original formation of AUKUS as a symbol of the country’s strategic irrelevance.

“New Zealand’s irrelevance was most graphically seen when Australia announced the formation of the AUKUS alliance and the purchase of nuclear submarines without bothering to inform New Zealand,” he wrote. “Under Labour, New Zealand has gone from being an ANZAC partner to being an afterthought.”

He further wrote that since a tour of its foreign minister to the South Pacific in May 2022, China had “continued to pressure New Zealand to maintain an ‘independent foreign policy’; translation: one that is more dependent on them and not on our traditional allies.”

Prime Minister Luxon with Chinese Ambassador Wang Xiaolong at recent Lunar New Year celebrations in Auckland. Image: Chinese Embassy Wellington.

A challenge to bipartisanism

Various commentators have noted a tradition of bipartisanship in New Zealand defence and foreign policy, but the recent ANZMIN 2+2 joint statement and the Labour Party’s apparent “walking back” from its previous openness to membership of AUKUS Pillar Two suggest an imminent departure from that tradition.

In last year’s post-election issue of Line of Defence Magazine, editor-at-large Peter Greener wrote that throughout the election campaign Christopher Luxon had “made a virtue of New Zealand having a bipartisan defence and foreign policy.”

“These statements were largely made in respect of the fundamentals,” wrote Greener, “being a commitment to New Zealand’s Five Eyes partners, especially Australia, to the nuclear free status of New Zealand and to the independent foreign policy.”

“The latter point was made with specific reference to having a balanced relationship with China,” he wrote, “something that is strongly held by both National and Labour.”

In a 2022 Lowy Institute article titled Is bipartisanship on national security a good thing?, Richard Maude commented (in reference to Australian politics) that bipartisanship can reassure allies and friends who want to know they can invest in mechanisms like AUKUS “without fear of being left like a shag on a rock by sudden policy shifts”.

According to Maude, it also provides certainty for defence planners, policy agencies, companies and public institutions such as universities that make significant decisions and implement major programmes of work off policies that they hope will endure beyond a single election cycle.

Bipartisanism, he suggests, is also a “helpful signal of national resolve to China”, and it can act as a disincentive for China “to exploit perceived policy splits.”

But it can also have its potential downsides, including allowing the government of the day – and its policies – to avoid scrutiny, and, in the extreme, stifling healthy broader public discourse on critical policy issues.

Whether foreign and defence policy bipartisanism is ultimately a good thing is a question that ultimately lends itself to debate, as is the question of just how much of a feature bipartisanism has actually been in the history of New Zealand politics.

To be sure, moments of partisan division on defence and foreign policy have been far from absent in New Zealand politics, but AUKUS membership brings with it potentially ‘right side of history’ level implications for our relationships with traditional Anglospheric partners, with Pacific Island Countries and ASEAN, and with China.

If recent ministerial statements and parliamentary rhetoric are anything to go by, it appears that the days of bipartisanism in Wellington on China may well be coming to an end. If that’s the case, there are deep ramifications. For a start, we can expect our domestic politics to become quickly polarised in relation to our view of the world and our place in it.

Ultimately, while an assertive coalition government may well sign us up to AUKUS Pillar Two, Australia and the AUKUS partners – and indeed China – could be left wondering how serious we really are, whether we’re ‘all in’, and whether our membership will survive the next election.