He was bound to say it. Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines wouldn’t be welcome visitors on this side of the Tasman, and AUKUS would not change New Zealand’s long-held nuclear free policy. But Chris Hipkins was addressing a non-existent problem. On the one hand, it’s difficult to envisage a peacetime scenario in which Canberra would want to send one of those multi-billion dollar subsurface vessels, suited for missions well into East Asian waters, to a New Zealand port. And on the other hand, we have plenty of time to ponder the hypothetical chances of that request coming from Canberra. Assuming no big delays (a dangerous thing to do) Australia will be waiting about a decade for the delivery of its first Virginia class submarines from the US (and then another decade before Australia builds any of the new generation submarines, the AUKUS SSNs, which will also be procured by the Royal Navy).
But that complex and expensive multi-stage deal brings a different nuclear-related challenge that touches on New Zealand’s pro-disarmament view of the world. The reactors in the Virginia class (as in some other US vessels) rely on weapons-grade highly enriched uranium. Selling vessels with this propulsion system may not be a technical violation of the respective safeguards agreements that nuclear weapon possessing America and its non-nuclear armed ally Australia have with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But it is definitely a blow for the spirit of the nuclear non-proliferation regime which New Zealand strongly supports, and will leave the IAEA with an extra verification challenge it scarcely needs.
That’s two strikes against the arms control part of the rules-based order which we could be forgiven for assuming is central to Wellington’s view of how the world should behave. How much noise New Zealand is willing to make about these problems remains to be seen. The slow drip of old-style nuclear arms control isn’t as sexy as the campaign to ban “killer robots” or as morally charged as the quest to outlaw nuclear weapons on humanitarian grounds. And Australia is, after all, our closest and most important partner.
But New Zealand’s big headache with the submarine deal is off in another direction. The Virginia Class vessels and the missiles they carry would put Australia towards the front of US war plans should armed conflict erupt with China somewhere in the East China Sea-Taiwan Strait-South China Sea area. In such an event, parts of Australia’s Southeast Asian neighbourhood are close to the firing line whether those neighbours like it or not. In the meantime, the deeper integration of American force elements in Australia (along with the rotational Royal Navy presence) increases the importance of down under targets for China’s own military planners.
The AUKUS submarine agreement turbocharges an existing trend: the chances of Australian involvement in a direct military confrontation with China. That trend is not just a product of the choices that Canberra is making, and the intensification of the Australia-US relationship as both prepare for potential crises and war with the People’s Republic. It is also a result of China’s geopolitical intentions and the intensifying military actions that are going with them.
As Australia gets ready to sends its submariners and engineers to train up with their American and British counterparts (an early part of the AUKUS submarine cooperation), New Zealand has some properly big strategic thinking to do. As I have argued recently in a long article, and in a short synopsis, in the event that Australian forces end up fighting in a war with China, trans-Tasman alliance obligations might spring into action for New Zealand.
On paper those obligations are strongest should Australia come under direct attack, a scenario which planners in Canberra are now taking more seriously. In practice, the New Zealand-Australia alliance has been most active in the South Pacific, where both Wellington and Canberra are concerned about China’s ambitions. But the most likely place for an Australia-China violent confrontation is maritime East Asia. And while New Zealand’s formal and informal obligations to Australia in that more remote zone may not seem as obvious, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that they are non-existent. ANZUS, which New Zealand has stopped talking about even though it has a trans-Tasman leg, is part of that picture.
That picture might see Australia at war with China in an even deeper way thanks to the submarine plans released at San Diego. And it might also have New Zealand somewhere inside the frame.
Robert Ayson is Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.