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For New Zealand, the Benefits of Joining AUKUS Pillar II Outweigh the Costs

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For New Zealand, the Benefits of Joining AUKUS Pillar II Outweigh the Costs

Although joining Pillar II could complicate aspects of New Zealand’s diplomacy, the fear of significant consequences seems overblown.

For New Zealand, the Benefits of Joining AUKUS Pillar II Outweigh the Costs
Credit: Depositphotos

I recently outlined the case for New Zealand to join Pillar II (PII) of AUKUS, which concerns sharing the most significant state-of-the-art high technologies. While in most cases these technologies are only in their infancy they will prove critical for the emerging Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). 

Despite the immense benefits of joining PII, the case against it has been loudly aired in the New Zealand media, including from high-profile former government officials. Few commentators seem willing to acknowledge the immense benefits of joining PII. Without a countervailing position, the New Zealand public are unable to appreciate the benefits and risks of each position. 

The motivation for my article was to provide a view of the upsides of PII, and I have now received a range of critiques. In this article, I respond to these to promote the quality of the public debate. In aggregate, I firmly believe the arguments for joining PII of AUKUS remain stronger than those against. 

Critique 1: AUKUS Makes War in the Region More Likely

Arguably, AUKUS decreases the chance of war. There are many reasons for this, and it pays to also extend our consideration beyond AUKUS to broader geostrategic developments.  

First, Australia is going to eventually have eight nuclear-powered submarines. Before that it will buy up to five Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines. It’ll also have the most state-of-the-art capabilities across its forces that will be interoperable with those of its AUKUS partners. Beijing must consider these miliary capabilities when it calculates whether war, even a limited one, is able to be won in the coming years – it will not just confront the U.S. military (more on that below) but Australian forces as well.

Let’s extend further. The U.S. military will increase rotation through Australia of air, land, and sea assets in coming years. In short, the U.S. military is becoming permanently embedded in Australia to secure Asia’s southern-most flank. This is another consideration China must keep in mind.

Beyond that, in surveying the region, Beijing sees there are approximately 50,000 U.S. forces in Japan and 20,000 in South Korea, and the United States is refurbishing its military bases on Okinawa, Guam and has recently secured new basing access in the northern Philippines (just 100 miles off the coast of Taiwan). 

Also, Japan has approved doubling its military budget by 2027 (by expenditure this will make it the world’s third-ranked military power). This will support military modernization, acquisition of long-range missiles, and replacement of naval vessels. 

And then Beijing needs to recognize the U.S. military is recalibrating to fight in the Indo-Pacific and consider the emergence and evolution of the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue). Officially this is an informal (read: eventually formal) grouping (read: hedging alliance) comprised of the United States, India, Japan, and Australia – the four major maritime liberal democratic powers of the Indo-Pacific. In the middle of their (wonky) geographic diamond is China.

Does all this increase or decrease the chance of war? It’s hardly a judgement call. Consider that China’s military expansion and actions have, until recently, gone largely unchecked (this allowed China to claim ownership over and militarize the South China Sea despite a ruling from an international tribunal finding it illegal). Generally, as a state’s relative military power grows, so too does its prospects of successfully conducting military operations. The United States’ broader regional response – in which AUKUS plays only one part – increases the costs and risks to China of using its military forces. This is likely the conclusion strategists in the U.S., Australia, and U.K. have come to. 

In aggregate, it seems more logical that AUKUS as one piece of a larger counter-balancing strategy decreases rather than increases the chance of war and maintains peace and stability in the region. 

Critique 2#: AUKUS Is a Key Driver Militarizing the Indo-Pacific

A militarization cycle is underway whether we like it or not, and it should be expected that New Zealand will respond regardless of AUKUS. The way AUKUS was loudly announced to the region has led it to acquire a kind of talismanic status, but it didn’t start the fire

What we have is a kind of action-reaction cycle in the region. This isn’t great, but there is hope that the competing parties can, in time, recognize one another’s defensive motivations. From there stabilizers can be established (arms control agreements; confidence building initiatives; Track I and II diplomacy; regular summitry; military hotlines, etc). 

Facilitating this is logical for New Zealand, and not inconsistent with joining PII of AUKUS. Indeed, it is consistent with New Zealand’s independent foreign policy that seeks to make decisions in the national interest while balancing ties with multiple – even competing – partners.

Critique 3#: New Zealand Will Get Emerging Technologies Without Joining AUKUS

First, I recommend reading the “Advanced Capabilities” section of this AUKUS Factsheet. These are critical 4IR technologies, and the document declares that work on them will proceed on a trilateral basis. The existing partners (the U.S., U.K., and Australia) will integrate these technologies, conduct trials and experiments, and accelerate their adoption and subsequent improvement. Key to this is sharing sensitive information and establishing expert workstreams. Industry-industry links will develop. 

Nowhere does the document say these technologies, the information-sharing processes to advance them, and the broader economic benefits that derive from them, will be readily shared with others, including close military allies such as NATO countries or Japan or South Korea. It, therefore, seems a risky bet to assume they will simply be given away to countries like New Zealand, given it is a U.S. partner but not an ally.

Some technological advances are occurring in the private sector or are adopted from military technology. Ergo, the critique goes, emerging technologies will be available on the open market for New Zealand. It’s not clear to me this will be the case across the board and, in fact, it’s entirely reasonable to expect Washington to offer the most strategically significant technologies to AUKUS members first to ensure first-mover advantage, and to impede or strictly control proliferation beyond them. 

If we – and presumably the U.K. and Australia – could guarantee access to these technologies outside AUKUS, then why does PII exist at all? My assumption is the information-sharing protocols and communication channels between the United States and its closest partners (the AUKUS nations) will be upgraded based upon PII technologies. The way they are used and are specifically calibrated will mean New Zealand cannot simply “plug-and-play” into these systems using technologies “off-the-shelf” from the consumer market. 

Therefore, without joining PII, New Zealand will eventually face high hurdles to remaining within the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement and its military, eventually, will struggle to interact capably with like-minded forces. It also means New Zealand’s military will be less effective in responding to natural disasters at home and in the South Pacific.  

Finally, PII is a mechanism to bring together the expertise and resources of AUKUS members; it will serve to incubate innovation between them, reducing bureaucratic hurdles and knowledge gaps. Ultimately, the AUKUS nations are going to devote considerable intellectual and monetary resources to it so I’ll stress again – they are unlikely to just give all this away. 

Critique 4#: New Zealand Will Sacrifice Its Independent Foreign Policy

No nation’s foreign policy is truly independent – including New Zealand’s. On some issues, like every state, it adopts stances at odds with others, and on others it aligns. Sometimes the government makes significantly independent decisions, like its anti-nuclear legislation in the 1980s and then when the Clark-led Labor government kept New Zealand out of the invasion phase of the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 (although Wellington sent troops and engineers in after the U.S. occupation began). 

These are notable and rare instances, however, and on a host of things New Zealand isn’t “independent” in an immaculate sense and is influenced by the changing regional and global situation. 

Relatedly, some are worried about New Zealand’s ties with China. In this view, Wellington must show immense caution about AUKUS, lest the country suffer trade retaliation. I recognize that saying “other markets will be found” is curt. It surely wouldn’t be easy to rapidly switch New Zealand’s exports to new markets (if it was, it probably would have happened already) and the short-term pain to the economy and exports, especially, could be significant.

But losing trade with China is a worst-case hypothetical. The risk is not zero (as Australia, Norway, Sweden, and South Korea have all discovered when crossing Beijing in recent years) but China, which is presently trying to improve its global image, would have to calculate there is more to gain than lose from economically punishing New Zealand, which China considers a “comprehensive strategic partner.” 

New Zealand also regularly calls for a diplomacy-first approach to international tensions. There is no reason, even if New Zealand does join AUKUS PII, why Wellington cannot reiterate its support for diplomacy as well as trade and cooperation on other matters. In fact, it should.   

It’s reasonable, also, that the Labor government fears the domestic political consequences of a decline in China-New Zealand relations. But standing up to perceived U.S. bullying in the 1980s did not hurt Labor then. Would Kiwis respond similarly now, or would they turn on their own government? 

Critique 5#: AUKUS Will Contribute to Nuclear Proliferation and Undermine New Zealand’s Anti-Nuclear Advocacy.

To be clear – New Zealand will not be party to Pillar I of the agreement that refers to nuclear submarines. This is consistent with the country’s independent foreign policy. Will New Zealand’s anti-nuclear credentials be damaged nonetheless? It can’t be ruled out yet; even so, any fallout can be contained through judicious diplomacy. 


Fundamentally, Pillar II of AUKUS is a high-tech/emerging technology and information-sharing agreement between the three current members. New Zealand is not presently party to it, nor is any other nation. 

The potential benefits of joining PII are immense – they are not just about the military, but about the future of New Zealand’s economic vitality, its desire to remain a first-world nation, and the belief even a limited war in Northeast Asia (over Taiwan or the South China Sea) would prove catastrophic to global trade. Moreover, New Zealand joining would not be at odds with Wellington’s brand of independent foreign policy.

Although joining PII could complicate aspects of New Zealand’s diplomacy, the fear of significant consequences seems overblown, and the benefits of joining Pillar II outweigh the potential costs.