Early reactions to the ANZMIN 2+2 meeting of Australia and New Zealand’s foreign and defense ministers suggest that New Zealand’s recently elected coalition government is breaking with the country’s traditional foreign policy independence.
On February 1, New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Winston Peters and Defense Minister Judith Collins met with Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Minister Penny Wong in Melbourne for the inaugural Australia-New Zealand Foreign and Defense Ministerial Consultations (ANZMIN 2+2).
In a joint statement, the ministers affirmed their commitment to strengthen the Australia-New Zealand alliance to address evolving geostrategic challenges, such as committing to increasing integration between the two countries’ defense forces, “including through common capability, exchanges of senior military officers and increased participation in warfighting exercises.”
The joint statement, perhaps surprisingly, also indicated that nuclear-free New Zealand had come to terms with Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS partnership.
“Ministers acknowledged Australia’s commitment to responsible nuclear stewardship and the highest non-proliferation standard in relation to its acquisition of conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines under AUKUS,” said the joint statement. Both countries’ ministers also agreed that “AUKUS made a positive contribution toward maintaining peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.”
In addition, they “welcomed the Quad’s commitment to an open, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific region” and reaffirmed the value of the Five Eyes partnership as a “crucial enabler of intelligence sharing and security cooperation among trusted partners.”
Comments in the statement in relation to the Indo-Pacific region appeared largely to be directed at China.
In addition to reaffirming “their commitment to an open, stable, and prosperous Indo-Pacific, where sovereignty is respected, and internationally agreed rules and norms are adhered to,” the ministers expressed serious concerns in relation to “destabilizing 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.
In one of several comments seemingly taking aim at China, the statement said that the ministers “opposed economic coercion in all its forms and recognized the importance of multilateral institutions and norms which promote free, fair, and open international trade.”
They also recognized the threat faced by both New Zealand and Australia “of foreign interference and information manipulation, including disinformation, and the challenge these pose to the Indo-Pacific region more broadly.”
“Showcasing this alliance sends a deterrence signal to authoritarian regimes attempting to use coercive practices to split Western allies and undermine sovereignty and rules,” wrote Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Justin Bassi and David Capie of New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington in a report on ANZMIN for ASPI’s The Strategist.
They further noted that the meeting “will be viewed as a natural part of an alliance that evokes memories of the Anzacs at Gallipoli and was crystallized in the aftermath of World War II and beginning of the Cold War with the 1951 ANZUS security treaty.”
Cold War references weren’t lost on China’s embassy in Wellington, which released a stern rebuke of the ANZMIN joint statement. “AUKUS is a stark manifestation of Cold War mentality as it seeks to establish a nuclear-related exclusive military alliance that targets third parties,” stated an embassy spokesperson. The spokesperson warned that AUKUS “will undermine peace and stability” and “sow division and confrontation in the region.”
In the wake of the meeting, Robert Patman of New Zealand’s Otago University commented that signing up to the AUKUS agreement could make New Zealand appear to be back-tracking on its nuclear-free commitment.
“While New Zealand may say it’s staying absolutely true to its non-nuclear security approach, nevertheless, pillar two is part of an agreement in which nuclear powered submarines are being transferred to Australia,” he told Radio New Zealand.
He also suggested that the development could make it appear to other countries in the Indo-Pacific that New Zealand is looking to withdraw into a tighter alliance with its traditional English-speaking partners, further eroding its claims to foreign policy independence.
Canberra will now be looking to understand just how New Zealand’s alliance rhetoric will translate into concrete measures, such as increased engagement and – perhaps – defense spending. For its part, Beijing will no doubt be keeping a similar watch.