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Aukus is the new kid on the block that hopes to keep the Big Red Dragon in check. An acronym for Australia-UK-US, the new grouping will cooperate strategically and militarily to keep the Indo-Pacific region secure and peaceful. The two big western nuclear powers will help Australia build a maritime arsenal that will include nuclear submarines.

Speaking to the media after the announcement, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had discussed the development first with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda before any other international leader only adding that Auckus was important to the whole Pacific region, not mentioning Ardern’s reaction, if any, to the announcement.

When asked about Aukus at her 1pm news conference on Thursday, though, Ardern said that with New Zealand’s long standing anti-nuclear stance, there was no way New Zealand would be part of an arrangement that involved nuclear vessels in the region –not that anybody asked New Zealand if it wanted to be part of the alliance in the first place.

Ardern was quick to add that New Zealand’s non-inclusion in Aukus had no bearing on our Five-Eyes intelligence alliance with Australia, Canada, the UK and the US. “This is not a treaty level arrangement. It does not change our existing relationships, including Five Eyes or our close partnership with Australia on defence matters,” she told NewsHub on Thursday.

New Zealand’s staunch anti-nuclear stance has been one of its defining attributes since 1984 when former Prime Minister David Lange banned vessels that were nuclear armed or nuclear powered from using New Zealand ports or even entering New Zealand’s territorial waters.

Since the United States neither officially confirms nor denies which of its vessels are nuclear capable, New Zealand applied a blanket ban on US Navy vessels. But an exception was made in 2016 when then Prime Minister permitted the USS Sampson to visit saying he was “100 percent confident” that the Sampson was not carrying nuclear weapons, based on the advice he had received. It is not nuclear powered either.

Commenting on Aukus at Thursday’s news conference Ardern further said, “The centrepiece of this arrangement is the building of nuclear-powered submarines to be based out of Australia, and Prime Minister Morrison and indeed all partners are very well versed and understand our position on nuclear-powered vessels and also nuclear weapons.”

Predictably, China has criticised Aukus terming it “extremely irresponsible”, “obsolete Cold War mentality” and “narrow-minded”, intensifying the arms race in the Pacific and damaging regional peace.

However, New Zealand’s strong and avowed anti-nuclear stance has come in handy in staying on the right side of the Chinese equation, something that is extremely vital to the New Zealand economy, China being our largest trading partner with trade worth nearly $30billion.

Simply by saying New Zealand won’t have a bar of anything that has a nuclear component based on a four-decade-old guiding principle, it has saved itself the potential inconvenience of even so much as hinting of siding with its Anzac twin or three of its Five Eyes partners on Aukus, vis-à-vis China.

In a hypothetical future scenario, though, if ever there is an act of aggression against New Zealand’s western or Pacific Island allies in New Zealand territorial waters, with a potential threat to its own security, will New Zealand still prevent Aukus nuclear powered vessels from coming to its aid based on its long held anti-nuclear ideal?

First appeared in Indian Weekender dated 17 September 2021