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The Strategic Case for New Zealand to Join AUKUS

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The Strategic Case for New Zealand to Join AUKUS

Pillar II of AUKUS relates to the sharing of advanced technologies and there are good reasons for Wellington to seek access to that part of the pact.

The Strategic Case for New Zealand to Join AUKUS
Credit: Facebook/The White House

New Zealand’s ruling Labour government has floated the idea of seeking access to the AUKUS trilateral security pact – specifically Pillar II, in order to share (in New Zealand’s case, largely to receive) advanced technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, cyber, undersea capabilities, hypersonic weaponry, information-sharing and electronic warfare.

The response in New Zealand from political commentators, activists, former prime ministers, and sitting opposition politicians has been overwhelmingly negative. The objective in this article is to suggest an alternative by offering an intersecting set of arguments in favor of New Zealand joining Pillar II of AUKUS.

AUKUS is a Package Deal

The first argument is that it’s critical for New Zealand to secure access to the emerging technologies identified in Pillar II. This will ensure the New Zealand Defense Forces (NZDF) remain interoperable with their key military partners (Australia, the U.S., and U.K.). New Zealand Minister of Defense Andrew Little explained that these technologies are “adjacent or allied to what is needed to protect defense personnel” (hardware, equipment) and “domain awareness” (surveillance and radio technologies). 

The aforementioned technologies will also be decisive factors in the emerging “revolution in strategic affairs.” Ensuring New Zealand’s access is essential; in the future, nations that most rapidly and successfully integrate them will have advantages over laggards. In the event of conflict in the Indo-Pacific, there will be little competition between future high-tech militaries and those reliant on older systems. As one British strategist explains, “The distinction most relevant will be between the best algorithm and the rest.”

Without joining Pillar II, New Zealand’s broader strategic, security, and intelligence ties with the AUKUS nations will atrophy. Lacking interoperability with its peers means New Zealand military doctrine will fall out of step. The NZDF will literally not be able to keep up in the field and/or communicate using allied communication channels. It will be unable to contribute in meaningful ways and its forces will become a liability. Meanwhile, military and supporting agencies’ abilities to respond to regional and domestic emergencies will be less than optimal. This is a relevant concern given the future will be one of intensifying extreme weather events.

New Zealand’s diplomats and intelligence agencies that are part of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing arrangement (alongside the U.S., U.K., Australia, and Canada) will also not be able to access and share intelligence through Five Eyes mechanisms. Ultimately, it may be pushed out of the Five Eyes.

In other words, Pillar II and AUKUS is a much larger package deal for New Zealand.

It’s About Economics

A secondary consideration is that some technologies, like AI, are becoming the critical components of modern economies and industry. Their importance will grow in coming years. Google’s CEO, for example, has said AI will be more significant to the human species than the discoveries of “electricity or fire.” This sentiment is widespread among politicians, tech CEOs, and military strategists. AI and the enabling systems, like 5G internet, will enable the “Artificial Intelligence of Things.” This will be the creation of essentially “sci-fi” modern economies in which data is harnessed to empower practically every aspect of human activity – including how we govern, the economy (driving massive advances in productivity), the nature of work, and social interactions.

Anyone now monitoring the release and capabilities of the 4th iteration of ChatGPT will recognize that what AIs are already doing is astounding. And these are merely the amoeba of the AIs to come given that each major tech company has their own AI research programs, all major countries have their own AI strategies, and the most powerful nations – the U.S. and China – are dumping billions into a race to become AI leaders. There may be covert military AI programs as well.

If New Zealand rejects Pillar II of AUKUS it will reduce the nation’s ability to access vital high technology. The country’s economy and standards of living may continue to decline relative to its peers if it does not strive to keep up.

Future-proofing Access 

AUKUS is also an insurance policy: it future-proofs New Zealand’s high-tech access in an increasingly unpredictable global environment. Already, Washington has successfully compelled and encouraged its allies to reject Chinese 5G. It then, alongside Japan and the Netherlands, cut exports of the most sophisticated semiconductors to Beijing

Indeed, China or U.S.-backed 5G networks are likely to set the baseline (the rules, norms, and laws) for how countries interact with technology and data this century. China will not be concerned if states use them for surveillance and repression; the U.S. will encourage technology to be used in a more transparent and inclusive way. Meanwhile, access to U.S. or China tech ecosystems will create technological path-dependency, giving Washington and Beijing immense influence to impede and/or proffer critical technologies, data, and upgrades that lock patrons into the adoption of successor technologies. U.S. and China-centric spheres of geopolitical technological influence will map across those parts of the world that adopt their preferred supplies. 

High technologies are, clearly, becoming more important to international security and a major factor in the U.S. and China’s global competition. Right now, New Zealand is being offered an opportunity to secure access to high-technologies – this will not always be the case – and its decision to do so may depend on what technological sphere Wellington wants to fall into.

AUKUS and the U.S.-China Great Power Competition

The fourth argument is that AUKUS is a measuring stick for where New Zealand stands in the intensifying U.S.-China Great Power Competition. What side, ultimately, will Wellington stand on? This competition pits a U.S.-led coalition including NATO, Washington’s Asian allies, and Australia, on one side, against a looser pseudo-alliance between China, Russia, and Iran on the other.

The dilemma here for New Zealand is that Australia is its sole military ally and the U.S. a very close partner. Most of New Zealand’s military arms have come from the U.S. since 2010, and the New Zealand and U.S. navies regularly conduct joint operations in the Pacific. At the same time, approximately 30 percent of New Zealand’s exports go to China. There is fear that Wellington will face Chinese economic retaliation if it joins AUKUS. Norway, Sweden, Australia, and South Korea have all faced such measures in the past when crossing Beijing. 

This is all occurring amidst a growing arms race throughout New Zealand’s broader region and there are several flashpoints where conflict could occur. These include Taiwan, North Korea, the South China Sea, and even the South Pacific, where New Zealand resides. In the latter, China is expanding its profile and securing port deals that could, in future, be converted for military purposes. 

Moreover, China’s pace of military expansion has been profound. From 1990 to 2020 its military spending grew tenfold; it is expanding its nuclear forces with the trend-line suggesting it may have 1,000 ICBMs by 2030; and between 2014 and 2018, China’s shipyards rolled out more naval vessels than the navies of the entire British, Indian, Spanish, Taiwanese, and German fleets combined.

All this while the prospect of conflict over Taiwan is growing. Beijing views the island as a renegade province that must be reunified with the mainland, peacefully if possible but militarily if necessary. President Xi Jinping has said the issue cannot be passed down from generation to generation. The U.S. and Australia (and Japan) have stated they reserve the right to come to Taiwan’s defense should it be attacked.

It is not just China that is building up its military forces. Notably, Japan is doubling its military budget and acquiring greater offensive capabilities; Australia, even before AUKUS, announced more military spending and acquisition of state-of-the-art capabilities; and Southeast Asian nations are all spending more.

In a militarizing region, New Zealand’s officials need to be making long-term calculations. If a U.S.-China neo-Cold War is underway, it might pay to bet on the most powerful and dynamic side – which is the U.S. and Australia. Joining Pillar II of AUKUS would go some way to cementing this. It does, however, run the risk that New Zealand-China trade could be severely damaged, but making the right long-term bet is vital.

There are other options available to New Zealand that I have detailed elsewhere. Joining AUKUS is just one of them. 

Let’s get the debate started.