Eugene Doyle: Helen Clark on why AUKUS isn’t in New Zealand’s national interest

Voters in New Zealand's last election “were not sensitised to policy changes
Voters in New Zealand's last election “were not sensitised to any changes in the [foreign] policy settings “and this raises huge issues of transparency.” Image: Q&A

COMMENTARY: By Eugene Doyle

Helen Clark, how I miss you.  The former New Zealand Prime Minister — the safest pair of hands this country has had in living memory — gave a masterclass on the importance of maintaining an independent foreign policy when she spoke at an AUKUS symposium held in Parliament’s old Legislative Chambers yesterday.

AUKUS (Australia, UK, US) is first and foremost a military alliance aimed at our major trading partner China. It is designed to maintain US primacy in the “Indo-Pacific” region and opponents are sceptical of claims that China represents a threat to New Zealand or Australian security.

The recent proposal to bring New Zealand into the alliance under “Pillar II”  would represent a shift in our security and alliance settings that could dismantle our country’s independent foreign policy and potentially undo our nuclear free policy.

Clark’s assessment is that the way the government has approached the proposed alliance lacks transparency.  National made no signal of its intentions during the election campaign and yet the move towards AUKUS seems well planned and choreographed.

Voters in the last election “were not sensitised to any changes in the policy settings,” Clark says, “and this raises huge issues of transparency.”

Such a significant shift should first secure a mandate from the electorate.

A key question the speakers addressed at the symposium was: is AUKUS in the best interest of this country and our region?

Highly questionable
“All of these statements made about AUKUS being good for us are highly questionable,” Clark says.  “What is good about joining a ratcheting up of tensions in a region?  Where is the military threat to New Zealand?”

Clark, PM from 1999-2008, has noticed a serious slippage in our independent position.  She contrasted current policy on the Middle East with the decision, under her leadership, of not joining the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Sceptical of US claims about weapons of mass destruction, New Zealand made clear it wanted no part of it — a stance that has proven correct. Our powerful allies the US, UK and Australia were wrong both on intelligence and the consequences of military action.

In contrast, New Zealand participating in the current bombardment of Yemen because of the Houthis disruption of Red Sea traffic in response to the Israeli war on Gaza is, says Clark, an indication of this change in fundamental policy stance:

“New Zealand should have demanded the root causes for the shipping route disruptions be addressed rather than enthusiastically joining the bombing.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that if the drift we see in position continues, we will be positioned in a way we haven’t seen for decades –  as a fully-signed-up partner to US strategies in the region.

“And from that, will flow expectations about what is the appropriate level of defence expenditure for New Zealand and expectations of New Zealand contributing to more and more military activities.”

Economic security
Clark addressed another element which should add caution to New Zealand joining an American crusade against China: economic security.

China now takes 26 percent of our exports — twice what we send to Australia and 2.5 times what we send to the US.  She questioned the wisdom of taking a hostile stance against our biggest trading partner who continues to pose no security threat to this country.

So what is the alternative to New Zealand siding with the US in its push to contain China and help the US maintain its hegemon status?

“The alternative path is that New Zealand keeps its head while all around are losing theirs — and that we combine with our South Pacific neighbours to advocate for a region which is at peace,” Clark says, echoing sentiments that go right back to the dawn of New Zealand’s nuclear free Pacific, “so that we always pursue dialogue and engagement over confrontation.”

Eugene Doyle is a community organiser and activist in Wellington, New Zealand. He received an Absolutely Positively Wellingtonian award in 2023 for community service. His first demonstration was at the age of 12 against the Vietnam War. This article was first published at his public policy website Solidarity and is republished here with permission.

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