Analysis – New Zealand may not be a party to the recently revealed security agreement between the US, Britain and Australia (AUKUS), but it certainly cannot avoid the diplomatic and strategic fallout.
Under the pact, Australia can gain nuclear-powered submarine capacity, and the United States seeks greater military base rights in the region. ASEAN allies have had to be reassured by fears that the region is nuclearizing.
Unsurprisingly, China and Russia reacted negatively to the AUKUS deal. France, which lost a lucrative submarine contract with Australia, felt betrayed and offended.
But behind the shifting strategic priorities that the new agreement represents – specifically, the emergence of an “Indo-Pacific” security approach aimed at containing China, lies a growing nuclear threat.
While New Zealand nuclear-weapon-free state makes him a less obvious target, he is an integral part of the Five Eyes intelligence network. Only the country’s potential enemies know whether that would make the Waihopai spy base an attractive target in a nuclear conflict.
100 seconds to midnight
However, what we do know is that nuclear catastrophe remains a very real possibility. According to the call Doomsday Clock, currently 100 seconds to midnight: humanity’s point of extinction should 13,100 nuclear warheads be thrown.
The United States and Russia account for the majority of them, with 1550 many of these deployed in maximum alert (meaning they can be fired within 15 minutes of placing an order) and thousands more in storage.
The other members of the “nuclear club” – France, Great Britain, Israel, India, North Korea, Pakistan and China – are esteemed to own more than 1000 more.
Most of these warheads are much larger than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. American, Russian and Chinese investment in developing a new generation of hypersonic missiles has raised fears of new arms race.
From New Zealand’s point of view, this is more than disappointing. Having freed himself from nuclear weapons in the 1980s, he worked hard to export politics and promote disarmament. The high tide was in 2017 when 122 countries signed the UN agreement. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
But the nine nuclear-capable countries just shrugged. The Trump administration even wrote to the signatories to say that they had made “a strategic mistake” that “turns back the clock of verification and disarmament” and urged them to rescind their ratification.
President Donald Trump then began to push rivets out of international frameworks to keep the threat of nuclear war in check. Left the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which banned short- to medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe, and the Open skies agreement, which allowed flights through national airspace to monitor compliance.
It also quit the multinational accord restricting Iran’s nuclear program (despite Iran’s compliance) and failed to denuclearize North Korea, despite the fanfare. The bilateral START Agreement limiting American and Russian nuclear weapons survived, but China rejected Trump’s idea of a trilateral nuclear pact.
Nor is time running backwards with Joe Biden in the White House. Even though that him Extended START, the Iran deal has not been resurrected and there has been no progress with a still provocative North Korea.
Both the INF and Open Skies agreements remain dormant, and the AUKUS pact has likely seen US-China relations reach a new low.
Time to renew the action
While it makes sense for New Zealand to maintain and promote its nuclear-weapon-free policy, it must also be pragmatic in reducing tension and risk, particularly in its own region. Being out of the AUKUS deal and being on good terms with China is a good start.
Not being a nuclear state could mean that New Zealand lacks influence or credibility in such a process. But the other ally left out of the AUKUS relationship, France, is a nuclear power and has strong interests in the region.
Like China, France is outside the main framework of nuclear regulation between the United States and Russia. Now may be the time for France to turn its anger over the AUKUS deal into genuine leadership and encourage China to a rules-based system. This is where New Zealand could help.
the Christchurch Call Initiative, headed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron after the 2019 terrorist attack, shows that New Zealand and France can cooperate well. Now may be the opportunity to go one step further, where the country that was free of nuclear weapons works with the country that bombed the Rainbow warrior, and together we started talking to China.
This would involve discussions on weapons verification and security measures in the Indo-Pacific region, including what types of thresholds could be applied and on what terms nuclear parity could be established and lowered.
Such an initiative could be difficult and time consuming, and for many, difficult to accept. But New Zealand has the potential to be an honest runner and has a voice that could be heard over the ticking of that clock.
UN Secretary General António Guterres warned Just last week: “We are on the brink of an abyss and moving in the wrong direction. Our world has never been more threatened or more divided.”
* Alexander Gillespie is a professor of law at the University of Waikato. He painted the Rainbow Warrior before the French flew it.