China containment: no CAUKUS-NAUKUS in sight
Canada and New Zealand have no intention of joining AUKUS, the military pact between the United States, Britain and Australia. However Ottawa says the arrangement is complementary to its interests in the Indo-Pacific. Wellington is ready to cooperate on cyber. The two countries do not want to formally take part in a military combination with a strong anti-China character.
Rome (AsiaNews) – CAUKUS and NAUKUS are not in sight. Canada and New Zealand have no intention of joining AUKUS, the military pact signed in mid-September by the United States, Britain and Australia, which many consider a new tool to contain the geopolitical rise of China. Ottawa and Wellington actually appear interested in cherry picking cooperation on areas other than nuclear submarines covered by the arrangement.
In October General Nick Carter, then British chief of the defense staff, said the trilateral deal could be expanded. Given their participation in the Five Eyes network (the intelligence alliance formed by the AUKUS nations plus Canada and New Zealand) and traditional links within the Anglosphere, Ottawa and Wellington seems natural candidates.
Canada’s position on AUKUS remains ambiguous. When asked by AsiaNews if the Canadian government was considering joining the trilateral entente, at least as far as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and missile technology are concerned, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson John Babcock said his country “has not sought to be directly involved in this arrangement.”
However, he added that Ottawa viewed AUKUS as complementary to its interests in the Indo-Pacific. “Security in the [region] is a priority that requires close collaboration with a wide range of partners. Canada remains committed to working with our partners and allies on regional security and stability”, he said. “As a Pacific nation, Canada continues to expand its defense and security engagement in the Indo-Pacific, including through an enhanced naval presence in the region.”
According to Robert Huebert, a senior fellow at the University of Calgary’s Center for Military and Strategic Studies, it is not inconceivable for Canada to join the AUKUS pact, which also would be to the advantage of all member countries. He said the problem is that “the current Canadian government has shown little willingness to engage seriously in any form of defensive posture against China.”
On whether Canada is contemplating the acquisition of US and UK nuclear submarine technology, the cornerstone of the AUKUS accord, Babcock replied that its country “currently has no plans to acquire nuclear submarines.” Yet the Canadian Defense Ministry explained to AsiaNews that the Royal Canadian Navy was establishing a patrol submarine project about a potential replacement class of subs that will investigate “all available options”.
Huebert believes a sound strategic argument can be made for Canada to once again consider buying nuclear powered submarines for its security requirements in the Asia-Pacific region and within its Arctic waters. However he noted that “politically it seems impossible to think that the Canadian government would now pursue such a project a third time.”
Differently from Canada, New Zealand’s distancing from AUKUS is more clear. Wellington's Ministry of Foreign Affairs underscored that the centerpiece of the arrangement was nuclear powered submarines, which are prohibited from the country’s internal waters under the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act.
But even so, New Zealand leaves a door open. “AUKUS includes cooperation on other emerging security capability areas, including ones on which we work closely with these countries, such as cyber. We will continue to engage closely with the US, the UK and Australia on how we can cooperate to mutual benefit in such sectors,” a New Zealand government spokesperson pointed out.
In its recently published 2021 Defense Assessment, the New Zealand cabinet says it has deep concerns about the Chinese military presence in the South Pacific. Wellington is worried by the possibility of the People's Liberation Army Navy establishing an outpost in Pacific island territories.
Robert Ayson, a strategic studies professor at Wellington’s Victoria University, does not think New Zealand seeks to join AUKUS as a member. He is also skeptical that the three signatories would offer actual membership to Wellington (or others). However he does believe there is the potential for some “AUKUS Plus” discussions with selected security partners: “If AUKUS does move significantly into some of the areas that are of interest to New Zealand, including cyber defense and artificial intelligence, for example, then I think Wellington would be keen to be in those discussions”. And for it to work for New Zealand's foreign policy, Ayson observed, Wellington should not join this collaboration as an AUKUS member per se.
The bottom line is that Canada and New Zealand might try to reap some benefits offered by AUKUS, but without the uncomfortable burden of formally taking part in a military combination with a heavy anti-China character.