NZ firms up AUKUS desire ahead of trans-Tasman talks

Ben McKay |

NZ aspires to join the AUKUS defence pact in which Australia will obtain nuclear-powered submarines.
NZ aspires to join the AUKUS defence pact in which Australia will obtain nuclear-powered submarines.

Pledging her country will not “freeload” on international security, Defence Minister Judith Collins says emerging space capabilities can help New Zealand be a worthy partner to AUKUS military allies.

New Zealand’s foreign and defence ministers, Winston Peters and Ms Collins, will meet with their Australian counterparts Penny Wong and Richard Marles on Thursday for historic talks in Melbourne.

The ANZMIN meeting is the first time the trans-Tasman leaders have met two-on-two.

NZ aspires to join AUKUS
Defence Minister Judith Collins says New Zealand is determined not to “freeload”. (Mark Coote/AAP PHOTOS)

AUKUS is certain to be discussed, alongside cooperation in the Pacific and Indo-Pacific.

At New Zealand’s urging, the meeting has been expedited as the new right-leaning government in Wellington seeks ever-closer ties with Canberra.

“In these increasingly complex and challenging times, we need to prioritise our relationships with partners who know us and share our values,” Mr Peters, the 78-year-old deputy prime minister, said.

“In that respect, there is no country more important to New Zealand than Australia.”

Ms Collins said she wanted a hand-in-glove approach in defence cooperation, even suggesting shared procurement.

“We need to be, as much as possible, interoperable with Australia,” Ms Collins told AAP.

“So when Australia’s buying things it’d be good if we can be involved. If it’s something that we can be part of, that’s what we’ve got to be doing.”

Since taking office in November, New Zealand’s new right-leaning coalition has made plain a preference for partnering with United States and Australia on international challenges.

That includes aspiring to join the second pillar of AUKUS; the defence pact between Australia, the UK and US which will see Australia obtain nuclear-powered submarines.

The second pillar centres on developing and sharing “advanced military capabilities” including as cyber, AI and quantum technologies.

“We are interested in being involved in pillar two. It’s not a secret,” Ms Collins said.

“As I understand it, the pillar two participants … are still working out quite how that will work and just what the opportunities will be to bring in others like ourselves, and like Canada and maybe other partners as well.

New Zealand to share knowledge with AUKUS
With the fourth-most rocket launches last year, New Zealand has knowledge to share with AUKUS. (AP PHOTO)

“In terms of the technology side, there are some things that we might well be able to add into that that will be helpful.”

Ms Collins said New Zealand’s growing space industry, which has US-aligned launch agency Rocket Lab at the centre, could assist.

“We were the country with the fourth-most rocket launches last year – as in orbits as opposed to weapons – after US, China and Russia,” she says.

“We could maybe add something around there. We already launch a lot of satellites for, and payloads that I sign off – so I’ve seen where they’re coming from – for lots of countries.”

Involvement in AUKUS at any level is controversial in New Zealand, which is fervently anti-nuclear, as is much of the Pacific.

The new Kiwi government also has a long-term ambition to roughly double its defence spending to around two per cent of GDP.

That may take time, as Prime Minister Chris Luxon has ordered widespread public service cuts in the forthcoming budget, which could impact defence investment.

Ms Collins, who preceded Mr Luxon as the National party’s leader, said “it’s really important that New Zealand not be a freeloader” on defence spending.

“We’re five million people. We’re smaller than Melbourne and we have to put together an air force, a navy and an army, so it is hard for us and we simply are not as wealthy,” she said.

“But that doesn’t mean we can’t play our part.”

New Zealand has been hit hard by attrition among defence personnel following the pandemic, including four of its nine-strong naval fleet sitting idle over summer.

“It’s a real concern that they’re not able to be used,” Ms Collins said.

“I love all my portfolios, but this one, defence, is the one that needs the most tender loving care. In the best way.

“Part of what we’ve got to do in defence is to get that attrition rate down, the morale up, and then the mojo back – on steroids.”

AAP