Foreign Minister Peters lambasts AUKUS Pillar 2 detractors in NZIIA speech

Line of Defence Magazine - Update

Winston Peters
Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Winston Peters delivers NZIIA lecture. Image: X.

In an annual New Zealand Institute of International Affairs (NZIIA) lecture at Parliament House, Foreign Minister Winston Peters sets record straight on Wellington’s engagement on potential Pillar 2 membership, writes Nicholas Dynon.

Setting the record straight

In the latter part of his NZIIA speech, the foreign minister turned to what he described as “the confused public debate around AUKUS Pillar 2.”

Clearing the waters on the government’s AUKUS Pillar 2 interactions to-date, Mr Peters reminded his audience that Pillar 2 discussions were initiated by the previous Labour government, before the current Coalition government was voted into office.

“In 2023, after almost two years of careful consideration, Labour’s Prime Minister, in concert with his Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence, sanctioned officials to begin discussions with AUKUS partners about Pillar 2’s scope and architecture.”

He also stressed that the ball was currently not in New Zealand’s court in terms of membership consideration.

“AUKUS partners need to want us to participate in Pillar 2 and invite us to do so,” he said. “That precondition has not yet been met, which is why we are exploring with our traditional partners the scope of Pillar 2 and seeking a much more detailed understanding of what this involves.”

If there was a need by Australia, the UK and US for New Zealand to join Pillar 2, then that would then need to materialise in the form of an invitation, said Mr Peters. This would then lead to a question of whether New Zealand would want to accept it.

“At that future point we will need to carefully weigh up the economic and security benefits and costs of any decision about whether participating in Pillar 2 is in the national interest,” he said.

“The Government is a long way from this point of being able to make such a decision.

“But we should emphasise that it would be utterly irresponsible for any government of any stripe to not consider whether collaborating with like-minded partners on advances in technology is in our national interest.”

Weighing up the benefits

New Zealand’s long-standing alliance with Australia, stated the Foreign Minister presented a need to understand the implications of Pillar 2 architecture for our closest defence and diplomatic relationship.

“For instance, if Australia adopts new advanced technologies what does that mean for New Zealand’s ability to communicate with our ally’s capabilities?”

“New Zealand’s independent foreign policy does not, and never has, meant we are a non-aligned nation, although that is the way some critics in politics and the media see it.”

He pointed also to the logic of exploring the potential economic benefits accruing from Pillar 2 membership, in particular how technological advances might deliver benefits for New Zealand’s economy, military and space sectors, and any societal gains.

“That is why former Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, and his Cabinet colleagues, were open to exploring Pillar 2’s opportunities,” said Mr Peters. “Now, it seems, not so much.”

In offensive defence

At this point, the Foreign Minister took aim at those voicing opposition to potential Pillar 2 membership, firstly voicing disdain over the possibility that defence and foreign policy bipartisanship may have been dealt a blow by differences over AUKUS.

“We are disquieted by any potential breakdown in foreign policy bipartisanship over Pillar 2. Bipartisanship in foreign policy is not a luxury for our small state, it’s a necessary condition for advancing our sovereign interests effectively, thereby keeping New Zealanders secure and prosperous. We urge them to hold their nerve.

“We also believe, given our information gathering is still in its early stages, that critics and commentators are well ahead of where the government presently sits in relation to Pillar 2.”

He then went on to reinforce the nature of Pillar 2 as a ‘technology sharing mechanism’ rather than a military alliance, reiterating that its development was occuring against a backdrop of deteriorating strategic conditions.

“Critics claiming New Zealand and the region face no security threats also ignore any number of reports and statements – like the Defence Policy and Strategy Statement and the National Security Strategy, or attribution statements about foreign interference – published under successive New Zealand Governments about specific and wider security threats,” he said.

“And let’s also be clear about which governments comprise Pillar 2: three of our closest friends on the international stage. Indeed, Pillar 1 partners comprise a US Government led by Democrat Joe Biden, a Labour-led Australian Government, and a Conservative Government in the United Kingdom, supported by the Labour opposition.”

In a parting shot to anti-Pillar 2 voices, Mr Peters decried what he referred to as “an ideological element underpinning the critics outright rejection of Pillar 2 and their claim that we are abandoning an independent foreign policy.”

This ‘ideological element’, he suggested, equated foreign policy independence with “saying no to the United States”. By contrast, he emphasised, an independent foreign policy allowed New Zealand to sometimes disagree with traditional partners, and to also agree with them at times when our interests were in alignment.

“New Zealand’s independent foreign policy does not, and never has, meant we are a non-aligned nation, although that is the way some critics in politics and the media see it,” he said.

“We have an intelligence partnership with four other Western, English-speaking countries. We have defence arrangements with a number of South East Asian partners. We build coalitions of interest across any number of issues. For New Zealand, to be independent is not to be neutral or non-aligned.

“Independence is about having the agency to freely make decisions, in any direction, consistent with well-considered, prudent assessments of New Zealand’s vital national interests.”