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New Zealand’s rickety quest to join

By James C. Pearce

 U.S. interests in New Zealand is as old as the republic itself. American merchants began visiting in 1797, and its first consul was set up in 1830 to protect U.S. interests in the whaling industry.

The first U.S. consul, James Clendon, was a British merchant. This was neither accidental nor ironic; the biggest threat to New Zealand and the 50 American merchants living there was the British.  

After British colonization of the islands, Americans found New Zealand a much less appealing place, now subject to unfavorable taxes and diminished rights. After gaining independence, its interest reignited in a new, very profitable area: security and defense.   

Today, New Zealand wants the British and Americans to return. The Pacific island nation has stepped up interest in joining the AUKUS defensive alliance amid China’s growing threat to peace in the Pacific.

Following its most recent election, the new conservative coalition inherited excellent relations with all three AUKUS members. It has signaled an openness to join the defense pact – far more than the outgoing Labor government – and enhancing these relations has become a top priority.  


Australia is already New Zealand’s closest ally. A series of AUKUS talks between the two have already happened. More are expected when its defense white paper is published later this year. There is also precedent for New Zealand taking part in such security arrangements. It once was a part of ANZUS, a military agreement with the US and Australia, and it maintains a separate pact with America.

New Zealand troops also fought alongside NATO in Afghanistan, attracting lavish praise from President George W. Bush.   

Numerous obstacles are ahead, though. New Zealand’s government is officially anti-nuclear. New Zealand would not accept, nor be offered “pillar one” of the AUKUS treaty. Therefore, the movement of weapons and eight to ten nuclear submarines is off the table.

The second pillar is the sharing of advanced military technologies. New Zealand’s military would be a net beneficiary of this program and unable to contribute much. As many experts have noted, New Zealand’s military technology has been “gutted” in recent years.      

New Zealand’s military is also tiny – just 15,000 personnel including reserves and the several overseas deployments across the Pacific and Middle East. Although around 2 million New Zealanders (just under half the population) are considered “eligible” for military service, recruitment has been a huge issue; for AUKUS it would be more troublesome. As the defense minister noted, service people cannot be recruited from the general labor market, as the skills needed for military jobs take years to acquire and must happen inside the force.

Politics is another stubborn sticking point. New Zealand’s national identity is more anchored in the Pacific than the other AUKUS members. As such, it has taken a more neutral and independent stance in global affairs over the years. It is one often anti-war, such as Iraq 2003, and more conciliatory to China. This may soon be over. The rise of China as a threat in the region has, perhaps naturally, changed national defense priorities.

Joining AUKUS would call into question New Zealand’s diplomatic standing as a Pacific nation, which projects that independent, rules based and non-nuclear stance on the world stage. Some in the Pacific fear that New Zealand joining the defense pact would only inflate the rivalry of the great powers and put them in more danger. New Zealand’s foreign minister has been touring the Pacific nations in recent months, and its cozying up to big powers is not sitting well.


Another sore spot is the appearance of an Anglosphere partnership. More poignantly, it is the idea that only the Anglosphere can prevent China’s vast influence across the globe. In many ways, it only helps paint a picture of empires rising once again, and attempting to carve up the world. One only has to look at the growing power of Turkey, Iran, China, Russia and the Arab states to see that competition is well underway.

Also unclear is whether or not joining AUKUS would legitimately advance New Zealand’s defense and security interests. True, defense investment would increase – and have a positive knock-on effect. How to fund that is less clear and may come at the expense of continued cuts to other government departments. AUKUS also does nothing to combat climate change – a more immediate security threat. AUKUS is, therefore, neither a quick fix, nor an obvious long-term solution. Rather, it is a guessing game.

Finally, the wild card: the U.S. presidential election. President Biden has taken the Indo-Pacific more seriously than any other American president. He is a reliable ally and partner and the U.S. Congress is keen on curbing China.

However, if Donald Trump wins in November, AUKUS dreams could end. Trump, as we have seen with NATO, has little time for small countries unable to pony up enough money for defense – especially anti-nuclear ones. Kissing Trump’s ring is probably not worth it.

Joining AUKUS is far from a guarantee or an obvious fit for New Zealand. It looks both sensible and senseless. That serious discussions are happening indicates that membership is never off the table. It would, however, enter New Zealand into uncharted political waters. It may not be ready for that.    


James C. Pearce is the author of "The Use of History in Putin's Russia." He is based in London. Send feedback to


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