Thoughts on AUKUS

We Must Choose a Side (Before One is Chosen for Us)

In recent days, three of our closest allies announced a new defence treaty: AUKUS. New Zealand was conspicuously absent. Even more striking is that this treaty between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America is about our own backyard – the Indo-Pacific. I would suggest our exclusion has much to do with New Zealand’s relationship with China, or more precisely, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This relationship has been described to me by allies as ‘ambiguous’, ‘lacking clarity’, and ‘confusing’, particularly in light of the importance we place on human rights, democracy, and loyalty to our traditional friends. It is no wonder that when talks of a defence treaty involving the most cutting edge technology and cooperation was underway, New Zealand was not involved. And let’s be clear, we were not invited.

The Prime Minister’s talk of our nuclear-free status misses the point, and deliberately so. We do not need nuclear capabilities, nor does New Zealand need to change its proud nuclear-free status. However, we would have benefited from the treaty – not only through clearly standing with our traditional democratic allies, but also being given access to the latest in artificial intelligence, quantum technology, and cyber security. It would also ensure our defence forces maintain the highest possible interoperability. The need for these technologies and cooperation is incontrovertible, especially with the ongoing cyber-attacks on New Zealand. We may not publically know who is behind these, but we do know we need better defences – something New Zealand cannot achieve alone.

How New Zealand navigates these increasingly troubled geo-strategic waters is not straightforward.  We are getting caught between two competing sides – our traditional allies on one side, and the CCP on the other. It is my contention however, that we need to make a choice of whose side we are on. The idea of having an independent foreign policy sounds good on paper, but in reality it often means doing little more than side stepping issues and vacillating between appeasing both sides. If we are constantly worried how our friends might react or of trade penalties, then this is hardly the definition of ‘free’. We are a very small player in an increasing turbulent world, but we should be unapologetically standing up for democracy, multilateralism, and the rules-based order. These have served New Zealand well since the Second World War and will continue to do so if we allow it.

How we address the relationship with China is complicated, but one thing is clear: we have to avoid extremes. On the one hand, we have those who talk of trade alone and that matters of human rights, democracy, and other considerations should be put aside. On the other, there are those who would happily see our trade fully compromised in the name of moral liberty. Neither is satisfactory or sustainable. 

A trade alone approach places money ahead of the very principles that allow such free trade to flourish. Democracy and human rights do not simply matter in one’s own country, but in others as well. Put crudely, there is little point in being an island of human rights and democracy in an ocean of compromised states. We would also do well to understand that authoritarian regimes that have the power to destroy a democracy (as seen in Hong Kong) also have the power to undermine free trade. By definition, authoritarianism applies to all aspects of life and politics, including trade. Those unsure of this would do well to look at how the CCP has – with the stroke of a pen – wiped out trillions of dollars from the technology sector. The growing crisis of China Evergrande is a further example of how market rules and forces are not the only considerations in play.   

Equally, those suggesting we throw caution to the wind and aggressively challenge China’s human rights record or coercive diplomatic efforts with no consideration of the trade consequences are misguided. Trade with China is important to the life we live here in New Zealand, and many businesses have built their success on this relationship. Perhaps as importantly, trade enables conversations; through such discussions, New Zealand is able to invaluably raise matters of human rights and areas of concern.

I would note, however, that our traditional allies still have a part to play beyond defence treaties.  We have a free trade agreement with China yet not one with the United States, the United Kingdom, or the European Union. It is time for such agreements to proceed not just for mutual trading benefits, but for facilitating that ‘diversity’ of trade we hear so much about. It is also worth highlighting that within 48 hours of the AUKUS announcement, the CCP formally asked New Zealand to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). This was no coincidence and is both an attempt to transfer attention firmly back to trade and to continue driving a wedge between New Zealand and its allies.

All my work and engagement in foreign affairs over recent years, including chairing Parliament’s Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade Select Committee last term, tells me that New Zealand will soon have to choose a side before that choice is made for us.


Simon O’Connor is the Member of Parliament for Tamaki; the immediate past Chair of the Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade Committee; and Co-Chair of the New Zealand Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC).