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New Zealand’s strategic priority in Indo-Pacific is not AUKUS but helping to defeat Putin in Ukraine

Published onNov 05, 2023
New Zealand’s strategic priority in Indo-Pacific is not AUKUS but helping to defeat Putin in Ukraine

Dr Robert G. Patman is professor of politics and director of international studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

The Putin regime’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has had a huge impact on the Indo-Pacific region, economically and diplomatically, and whoever forms the next New Zealand government faces the challenge of clearly addressing these strategic consequences.

Since March 2023, there has been a debate in New Zealand on whether the country should join the second pillar of AUKUS – the tripartite security partnership established by the US, UK and Australia in September 2021 – to share information in cutting-edge defence technologies in order to help “uphold the international rules-based order”.

The first pillar of AUKUS involves Australia acquiring eight to ten nuclear-powered submarines from the US and the UK over the next three decades at an estimated cost of between A$268 billion and A$368 billion.

Interestingly, there are now growing signs of disquiet within Canberra over the cumulative impact of this huge expenditure on Australia’s general defence capacity.

AUKUS seems to be based on the assumption it will deter or counter China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, but it is not self-evident this arrangement would advance the core national interests of New Zealand.

While New Zealand’s “stability, security and prosperity” depends critically, in the words of a recent government document, on an international rules-based order, it is also plain that China is not the sole or most serious threat to this order.

Putin’s Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and then proceeded in February 2022 to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, flagrantly contravening basic UN principles of state sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The capitals of the Indo-Pacific region have been closely monitoring the invasion of Ukraine. Given the sensitivity to sovereignty concerns, most Southeast Asian states supported the UN resolution of 2 March, 2022, condemning Putin’s ‘special military operation’ (with the exception of Laos and Vietnam that abstained).

However, only Singapore, a close US ally, imposed sanctions on Russia, and generally ASEAN’s statements on the invasion have not criticised Moscow directly.

There is considerable unease within Asia over the disruption and price shocks for global commodity of the Ukraine conflict.

For Indonesia and many other Southeast Asian states, the Russian assault on Ukraine led to soaring prices for food and energy and a more polarized diplomatic environment.

Indonesia is the second largest market for Ukrainian wheat and the fourth largest for Russian chemical fertilizer, which is needed to grow local rice.

ASEAN countries are major wheat importers, accounting for 15% of global imports, and Indonesia is the largest importer.

Meanwhile, many states in the Indo-Pacific are conscious that regional heavyweights like China and India remain important partners of Moscow.

China has abstained on crucial UN resolutions condemning Russian actions in Ukraine, repeatedly places the blame for the conflict on NATO, with the US purportedly fuelling the conflict, and has massively expanded trade with Russia since the start of the invasion.

Bilateral trade will exceed $200bn in 2023, a jump of $70bn since 2021 with Russian energy shipments to China projected to increase by more than 40% this year.

Military ties between China and Russia continue to deepen. The two states have held several joint military exercises since the start of the Ukraine invasion, Beijing has quietly supplied military-related technology to Russia, and the PRC reportedly supplied components to Iran in 2023 for use in drones being sold to Russia.

While the Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi has been more overtly critical than Xi Jinping of Russia’s Ukraine invasion, his continues to emphasise close diplomatic and military ties with Moscow.

India has also abstained on key UN resolutions criticising the invasion of Ukraine and while tensions in India’s relations with China have increased, the Indian government shows no signs of seeking to reduce its dependence on spare parts and technical support for the many Russian weapons platforms in the Indian military complex.

Further, trade turnover has risen more by over 300% since Moscow’s invasion, a trend which includes a tenfold increase in the purchases of discounted Russian oil by India.

A third area of concern for Indo-Pacific countries has been the response of the United States and wider international community to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

While Indo-Pacific states will be aware the Biden administration has directed more than $75bn in financial and military assistance to support Ukraine’s fight against Russia, NATO has further expanded its membership, and a range of comprehensive and collective sanctions have targeted the Russian economy, they could question the staying power behind this effort.

After all, the Biden administration has tried not to ‘provoke’ Putin’s regime in supporting the defence of Ukraine’s sovereignty, international supporters of Ukraine include those that champion a ‘land for peace’ deal with Putin, and there remains a possibility that a new Republican administration in Washington in 2024 just might abandon the current military commitment to Ukraine.

In the circumstances, it is vital that New Zealand remain clear-eyed about the linkage between its strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region and defeating Putin’s expansionism in Ukraine.

To date, New Zealand has contributed more than $70 million in humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine.

But this aid effort to a liberal democracy that gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994 (in return for Russian recognition of its sovereignty and territorial integrity) and shares New Zealand’s goal of reforming the UNSC looks pretty modest given the scale of possible fallout for the Indo-Pacific region if Putin gets any sort of victory in Ukraine.

The best way for New Zealand to contribute to countering China assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific is to significantly increase its military support for President Zelensky’s government in Kiev.

If Putin’s army is defeated or forced to withdraw from Ukraine, it will be a serious blow to Xi’s leadership, complicate any plans he might have for annexing Taiwan, and go some way to bolstering an international rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.

Robert G. Patman is an Inaugural Sesquicentennial Distinguished Chair and a specialist in international relations at the University of Otago

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