The Bulletin

New Zealand’s strategic priority in the Indo-Pacific is not AUKUS – it's helping to defeat Russia in Ukraine

  • Written by Robert G. Patman, Professor of International Relations, University of Otago

The debate in New Zealand over whether to join[1] “pillar two” of the AUKUS security partnership threatens to overshadow a more important foreign policy challenge: how the country’s allies in the Indo-Pacific region are responding to the war in Ukraine.

AUKUS seems to be based on the assumption it will deter or counter China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. But it is unclear whether this arrangement would advance the core national interests of New Zealand.

While New Zealand’s “stability, security and prosperity” depend critically, in the words of a recent government document[2], on an international rules-based order, it is also plain that China is not the sole or even most serious threat to this arrangement.

Meanwhile, the capitals of the Indo-Pacific region have been closely monitoring the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Most supported last year’s United Nations resolution[3] condemning Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” (Laos and Vietnam abstained).

But only Singapore, a close US ally, imposed sanctions[4] on Russia. And generally, the ASEAN nations’ statements on the invasion have not directly criticised Moscow. This is related to the considerable unease in Asia over the disruption and price shocks for global commodities caused by the Ukraine conflict.

Indo-Pacific interests

For Indonesia and many other South-East Asian states, the war has led to soaring prices for food and energy, and a more polarised diplomatic environment.

Indonesia is the second-largest market for Ukrainian wheat and the fourth-largest for Russian chemical fertiliser, which is needed to grow local rice. Overall, ASEAN countries are major wheat importers, accounting for 15% of global imports.

Read more: The defence dilemma facing NZ's next government: stay independent or join 'pillar 2' of AUKUS?[5]

At the same time, many Indo-Pacific states are conscious that regional heavyweights China and India remain important partners of Moscow.

China has abstained on crucial UN resolutions[6] condemning Russian actions in Ukraine. Beijing has repeatedly placed the blame for the conflict on NATO and the US purportedly fuelling the conflict.

China has also massively expanded trade with Russia[7] since the start of the invasion. This bilateral trade will exceed US$200 billion in 2023, a jump of $70 billion since 2021. Russian energy shipments to China are projected to increase by more than 40% this year.

Closer ties: Chinese leader Xi Jinping meets Vladimir Putin in Moscow, March 2023. Getty Images

China, India and Russia

Military ties between China and Russia continue to deepen. Several joint exercises having taken place since the start of the Ukraine invasion. Beijing has quietly supplied military-related technology to Russia, and reportedly supplied components to Iran in 2023 for use in drones being sold to Russia.

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

Read more: Talk of a new Cold War is overheated – but NZ faces complex challenges in the era of ‘strategic competition’[8]

India has also abstained on key UN resolutions[9] criticising the invasion. And while tensions between India and China have increased, the Indian government shows no signs of reducing its dependence on spare parts and technical support for the many Russian weapons platforms used by the Indian military.

Further, trade turnover has risen by over 300% since the invasion, including a tenfold increase in discounted Russian oil bought by India.

Finally, Indo-Pacific nations will have other concerns about the response of the US and wider international community to the Russian invasion. In particular, they might question the West’s staying power.

Read more: NZ’s first national security strategy signals a 'turning point' and the end of old certainties[10]

The Biden administration has directed more than $75 billion in financial and military assistance in support, NATO has further expanded its membership, and a range of comprehensive and collective sanctions have targeted the Russian economy.

But the US has also tried not to directly “provoke” the Putin regime while supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty.

There are international supporters of Ukraine who champion a “land for peace[11]” deal with Russia, too. And it remains possible that a new Republican administration in Washington in 2024 might abandon the current military commitment.

Supporting Ukraine to counter China

Given the circumstances, New Zealand should remain clear-eyed about the connections between its strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific and its support for defeating Russian expansionism.

To date, New Zealand has contributed more than NZ$70 million in humanitarian and military aid[12] to Ukraine. But this looks pretty modest in light of the possible fallout for the Indo-Pacific region if Putin wins any sort of victory.

Read more: The US navy is still more powerful than China's: more so than the Australian government is letting on[13]

Especially so, considering Ukraine is a liberal democracy that gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994 (in return for Russian recognition of its sovereignty and territorial integrity), and which shares New Zealand’s goal of reforming the UN Security Council.

Indeed, the best way for New Zealand to contribute to countering Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific would be to significantly increase its military support for Ukraine.

If Russia is defeated or forced to withdraw, it will be a serious blow to Xi Jinping’s leadership and complicate any plans he might have for annexing Taiwan. This would go some way towards bolstering the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific that is so clearly in New Zealand’s interests.

Read more

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