The following article was first published in the Daily Blog on 20 September 2021
There are multiple reasons for nuclear-free New Zealanders to be upset about Australia’s plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.
Much of the commentary has focused on the exclusion of such vessels from New Zealand waters under our nuclear-free legislation.
However, that legislation was not just to free our territory of nuclear power generation and nuclear weapons, but to provide an example that the rest of the world could follow.
From that perspective, Australia’s purchase of nuclear-powered submarines runs in the wrong direction.
Australia says it has no plans to arm the new subs with nuclear warheads, but that could change. Its partners, Britain and the US, have nuclear-armed submarine fleets. Chinese commentators have warned that Australia could become a nuclear target if there was ever any doubt as to whether its subs were nuclear-armed.
New Zealand has long championed nuclear disarmament and was an early signatory of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The AUKUS deal violates Article 3 of that treaty, by enabling two nuclear weapons states (the US and UK) to transfer highly enriched uranium to a non-nuclear weapons state (Australia). Up until now, only weapons grade fissionable material will work in the American-designed ship reactors.
To moderate any offence taken in Washington and Canberra, our Prime Minister said that “we welcome the increased engagement of the UK and the US in our region.” But surely when it is military engagement it’s the last thing we need in the South Pacific.
New Zealand was a driving force behind the 1985 South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, which envisaged a peaceful Pacific, free of nuclear weapons and nuclear pollution. It is not in the spirit of the Treaty to have nuclear-powered (and likely nuclear-armed) submarines buzzing around our region.
Unfortunately, even though New Zealand is not a member of AUKUS, it is being dragged into a new Cold War with China, which has a nuclear dimension. New Zealand is spending $2.3 billion on four American P8 Poseidon surveillance planes, optimised to detect and kill enemy [read Chinese] submarines. Currently the frigate Te Kaha and the tanker Aotearoa are on their way to join the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and Australian warships for 5-Power war games in the South China Sea. China is not going to be too happy.
This not what a nuclear-free, peacemaking country should be doing. If we want to be truly independent we should break free of our military subordination to the AUKUS nations: United States, Britain and Australia.