Pacific wants open discussion on AUKUS to keep region ‘nuclear free’

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New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters with Samoan Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa
New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters with Samoan Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa in Apia last week. Image: Eroti Navulu/RNZ

By Eleisha Foon, RNZ Pacific journalist

Keeping the Pacific nuclear-free, in line with the Rarotonga Treaty, was a recurring theme from the leaders of Tonga, Cook Islands and Samoa to New Zealand last week.

The New Zealand government’s Pacific mission wrapped up on Saturday with the final leg in Samoa.

Over the course of the trip, defence and security in the region was discussed with the leaders of the three Polynesian nations.

In Apia, Samoan Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa addressed regional concerns about AUKUS.

New Zealand is considering joining pillar two of the agreement, a non-nuclear option, but critics have said this could be seen as Aotearoa rubber stamping Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.

“We would hope that both administrations will ensure that the provisions under the maritime treaty are taken into consideration with these new arrangements,” Fiamē said.

New Zealand’s previous Labour government was more cautious in its approach to joining AUKUS because it said pillar two had not been clearly defined, but the coalition government is looking to take action.

Nuclear weapons opposed
Prime Minister Fiamē said she did not want the Pacific to become a region affected by more nuclear weapons.

She said the impact of nuclear weapons in the Pacific was still ongoing, especially in the North Pacific with the Marshall Islands, and a semblance of it still in the south with Tahiti.

She said it was crucial to “present that voice in these international arrangements”.

“We don’t want the Pacific to be seen as an area that people will take licence of nuclear arrangements.”

The Treaty of Rarotonga prohibits signatories — which include Australia and New Zealand — from placing nuclear weapons within the South Pacific.

Mark Brown, left, and Winston Peters in Rarotonga. 8 February 2024
Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown (left) and Winston Peters in Rarotonga last week. Image: RNZ Pacific/Eleisha Foon

Cook Island’s Prime Minister Mark Brown said Pacific leaders were in agreement over security.

“I think our stance mirrors that of all the Pacific Island countries. We want to keep the Pacific region nuclear weapons free, nuclear free and that hasn’t changed.”

Timely move
Reflecting on discussions during the Pacific Islands Forum in 2023, he said: “A review and revisit of the Rarotonga Treaty should take place with our partners such as New Zealand, Australia and others on these matters.”

“It’s timely that we have them now moving forward,” he said.

Last year, Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka proposed a Pacific peace zone which was discussed during the Forum leaders’ meeting in Rarotonga.

This year, Tonga will be hosting the forum and matters of security and defence involving AUKUS are expected to be a key part of the agenda.

Tongan Acting Prime Minister Samiu Vaipulu acknowledged New Zealand’s sovereignty and said dialogue was the way forward.

“We do not interfere with what other countries do as it is their sovereignty. A talanoa process is best,” Vaipulu said.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters and Health and Pacific People Minister Dr Shane Reti reiterated that they cared and had listened to the needs outlined by the Pacific leaders.

They said New Zealand would deliver on funding promises to support improvements in the areas of health, education and security of the region.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

Winston Peters and Tonga's Acting PM Samiuela Vaipulu. 7 February 2024
Winston Peters and Tongan Acting Prime Minister Samiuela Vaipulu in Nuku’alofa last week. Image: RNZ Pacific/Eleisha Foon
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