NZ eyes place in AUKUS alliance after trans-Tasman trip

Ben McKay |

Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles says Australian and New Zealand ties should be fit-for-purpose.
Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles says Australian and New Zealand ties should be fit-for-purpose.

Citing a more volatile world, New Zealand will deepen military ties with its trans-Tasman ally, and host an Australian delegation to further discuss AUKUS membership.

The Australian and New Zealand defence and foreign ministers met in Melbourne on Thursday for an inaugural ANZMIN meeting.

Talks between Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, Senator Penny Wong and Kiwi counterparts Judith Collins and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, centred on enhancing security.

“We have committed to working much more closely together in terms of defence operations to give effect to deterrence … and building interoperability and interchangeability between our two defence forces,” Mr Marles said.

A joint communique said the meeting took place in the “most challenging strategic environment in decades”, a reference to wars in Ukraine, Gaza and a more assertive China.

Mr Peters, 78, said that required diplomacy of a “greater maturity, greater intensity than I remember in my time”.

In essence, the security environment is driving New Zealand to be closer with its traditional ally, Australia.

That will include detailed discussions on joining AUKUS, Australia’s deal with the US and the UK to obtain nuclear-powered submarines.

Judith Collins, Richard Marles, Winston Peters and Penny Wong met in Melbourne. (Ben McKay/AAP PHOTOS)

New Zealand’s hand is up to join pillar two of the pact, which centres on advanced technology sharing, including artificial intelligence and cyber warfare, and military interoperability.

Mr Marles said growing the pact would only occur in the long term but Aussie officials would soon travel to brief the Kiwis on the tie-up.

Ms Collins said New Zealand’s growing space industry could bring value to the military alliance.

No country – aside from superpowers US, China and Russia – launches more satellites than New Zealand.

The Kiwi defence minister said increased strategic competition and challenges meant “increasingly, the rules-based order which we rely on as democratic countries is under threat”.

“In that context, there has never been a more important time to work with close friends,” he said.

The increased closeness could extend to buying military assets together, bringing two benefits: interoperability, and savings for an under-pressure Kiwi defence budget.

“For the first time, we’re looking at how we can work together when it comes to procurement,” Ms Collins said.

Thursday’s meeting confirms moves by Chris Luxon’s government to position New Zealand more closely alongside traditional allies in Canberra and Washington DC.

In December, New Zealand responded to a US request, deploying six Kiwi defence personnel to help counter Houthi attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea.

In recent years, New Zealand has drawn criticism from security analysts for being too close to China.

New Zealand has enjoyed economic benefits from a trailblazing free trade pact in 2008.

Ms Collins rebuffed suggestions New Zealand was naive to the superpower’s threat.

“Just because we don’t say things, doesn’t mean to say we don’t know things. And just because we’re quiet, doesn’t mean to say we’re stupid,” she said.

“We’re very aware of the changing geopolitical times in the world.

“China has been a good economic friend to us … we just have to always be alive to stuff.”

New Zealand’s growing interest in AUKUS  has drawn detractors at home, in part due to Kiwis’ strong opposition to nuclear power and weapons.

The opposition NZ Labour party is unclear on whether it will back a move to join AUKUS pillar two.

“We think its important to not to position China as a foe,” Labour foreign spokesman David Parker said.