AUKUS sounds like a fearsome predatory bird but no, it's the latest defence alliance to hit the world stage, an alliance between Australia and her important allies, the United Kingdom and United States. New Zealand was not invited and, apparently, our government knew nothing of it until after it was signed.
Do not feel bad about not being invited to the latest party in our neighbourhood. Others were not, including Japan, India, Canada, Mexico and Chile, all countries with an ongoing interest in the Indo-Pacific region and China's expanding influence in the area.
Firstly, AUKUS is all about Australia joining the big boys and girls on the world military scene, with the purchase of eight nuclear-powered submarines to patrol its maritime area, and supposedly to work with American and British forces in reining in China's influence in the Pacific. Australia also wants to buy Tomahawk cruise missiles from the US. That's serious rocketry..
Australia has reneged on a 2016 deal with France to purchase a similar number of diesel submarines to replace their ageing boat squadron. The French are very upset. There will be fallout from this betrayal - watch how Australia's trade deals progress with the European Union.
Canada similarly didn't found out about the deal until after it was signed, apparently, so AUKUS has become a very exclusive club, an elite amongst the Indo-Pacific nations.
We can easily understand why New Zealand was excluded from the deal and the pact. Firstly, because we do not accept nuclear-powered vessels in our ports and secondly, at about $8 billion each we probably could not afford any submarines even if we wanted them.
A lesser but possibly important factor is our ongoing successful trade relationship with China. Unlike Australia, we do not have potentially troublesome neighbours near our borders so perhaps we do not feel the need to "arm up", as Australia clearly does.
It is surprising that Canada was excluded, an ally of the US whereas New Zealand is only a "friend" of America. Washington still has not forgiven us for standing up for ourselves in the 1980s over the nuclear-free issue and refusing to bow to pressure from our then ANZUS partners.
New Zealanders are, thankfully, by nature quite independent thinkers on the international stage. We can afford to go our own way due to our small size and isolation - we don't scare anyone. Our military, while modern, is not a significant influence of any sort on world affairs.
New Zealand still needs to be able to operate with Australia in defence matters so there will be a price to pay for this. An ongoing commitment to the Five Eyes agreement which will require our government to take some sort of stand against China's plans in the South China Sea and the Pacific region must continue if we are to maintain any sort of credibility as an ally of Australia and a friend to all in the region.
New Zealand will also be expected to modernise its frigate fleet in the coming 10 years or so. The ANZAC frigates will be due for replacement in the 2030s. Any new vessels will need to be compatible with Australian navy ships, as well as the Singapore, Canadian and Japanese navies.
Defence is a huge budget item for any government nowadays. A Labour government, perhaps with pacifist influence from the Greens after the next election, must withstand the temptation to not continually upgrade our defence forces as we can manage. It is vital that we retain international credibility and the ability to help our Pacific neighbours in times of international uncertainty and disaster, limited though our military can ever be.
We must continue to be an ally to our closest neighbour and be seen to be a friend to the US and to China if possible. While I am sure our Aussie mates would come to our assistance, as they always have, and we them, it is only fair that we carry our share of the load.
What is surprising is the involvement of Britain in AUKUS. This seems contrary to a long-standing policy of keeping out of anything "east of Suez". However, British defence policy is leaning in that direction, with discussions about British forces being located in the UAE. It seems everyone who matters on the world stage is taking an interest in our neighbourhood lately.
What of China? It is not happy about what is seen as a ramping up of tension by Australia's decision to modernise its submarine flotilla with nuclear-powered boats. There will be strong public statements out of Beijing in the coming weeks.
The Guardian – What Is the Aukus Alliance and What is Its Implications?, 16/9/2021
FP News, Australia Badly Needs Submarines, 20/9/2021
The Straits Times, Australia to acquire US Tomahawk cruise missiles as part of trilateral defence pact, 20/9/2021
Royal United Service Institute think tank, 2013. Policy paper.