What do you do when your neighbour goes nuclear?
The Ardern government will be tackling that question after being taken aback by news the Australians are to buy US nuclear attack submarines and will form a new trilateral security partnership to be called AUKUS.
Our Beehive connections tell us PM Jacinda Ardern was briefed by Australian PM Scott Morrison last night.
We are tempted to say these developments confirm how far NZ has slipped off the map in terms of a regional defence power. Our contacts say the Beehive is still grappling with how come NZ wasn’t consulted about the new security partnership – or even invited.
Canberra will acquire several Virginia Class nuclear attack submarines. A $A90 billion plan to buy French nuclear submarines and convert them to diesel-electric power will be abandoned.
The submarines have an unlimited range and are armed with torpedoes and a range of missiles. The US say their range is, in effect, limited by human demands such as food and health since they generate their own oxygen and water.
This, our diplomatic contacts in the capital suggest, affirms the view that Australia, the UK and US have read the Ardern government as having no real sense of the rapidly evolving strategic situation in southern Asia and the Pacific.
NZ’s long-standing anti-nuclear legislation has never been forgotten in Canberra, London and Washington.
They also know the Ardern government is half-hearted when it comes to defence, with spending around 1.4% of GDP and likely to be reduced even further under current plans.
Some say this is Finance minister Grant Robertson’ revenge for being rolled in the last Cabinet by Winston Peters and Ron Mark over the P-8A Poseidon and C-130J-30 purchases.
Our Australian connections say AUKUS will focus on aligning technology and regional challenges. Allied naval presence is expected to increase north of Australia — including in the contested South China Sea — as part of a coordinated tri-continental push against Beijing territorial aggression.
The partners are expected to reorient their submarine and warship fleets to counter China’s increasing regional presence.
The decision to go nuclear is likely to re-energise the Australian anti-nuclear movement. Already major ports like Sydney and Melbourne refuse entry by nuclear-powered ships.
Ten years ago, Ross Babbage, the founder of Australia’s respected think tank, the Kokoda Foundation, issued a monograph, Australia’s Strategic Edge in 2030, which examined the changing military balance in the Western Pacific and its implications for Australia.
He said Australia would need to take drastic action in order to protect its interests in a region increasingly dominated by China.
These include acquiring a fleet of 12 nuclear-powered attack submarines (the report hinted at leasing or purchasing Virginia-class SSNs from the United States), developing conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles, increasing Australia’s investment in cyber warfare, and hosting American forces on Australian soil.
But some policy wonks in this country argue that the best part of the announcement is that NZ is not a part of it.
The reasoning is that it’s wiser to continue talking to them than provoking them