The Land of the Long White Doubt: A Call to ANZUS

The Australia-New Zealand-United States (ANZUS) mutual defense arrangement has languished in a bizarre limbo for decades. Since New Zealand’s decision to declare itself a “nuclear-free zone” in 1984 and the suspension of the U.S. alliance commitment to New Zealand in 1986, the alliance relationship has been maintained by an ad-hoc arrangement of two separate pacts: the Australia-U.S. alliance and the Australia-New Zealand alliance.

This tenuous connection functioned effectively during the “holiday from history” of the 1990s and early 2000s. With a dearth of great power competitors in the region, all sides were able to maintain essential aspects of their defense policies; the United States could ensure its foothold in the South Pacific, and New Zealand could uphold its anti-nuclear stance. Successive New Zealand governments maintained the 1987 New Zealand Nuclear-Free Act, and with 51 percent of New Zealand citizens supporting the nuclear-free zone, the succeeding center-right National Party government of the early 1990s was not politically inclined to alter the law. With the United States unwilling to budge from its position and given the benign strategic environment of the post-Cold War Pacific, the alliance was permitted to fall into a long state of limbo.

However, the Sino-American competition roiling the Indo-Pacific today has generated a need to re-examine the ANZUS alliance. China has keenly and skillfully exploited the wedge within ANZUS by deploying economic firepower and exploiting the openness fundamental to liberal democracies through the activities of organizations affiliated with the United Front Work Department. Settling alliance arrangements to ensure commonality of purpose at this critical juncture will close vulnerable seams in the network of free states in the Indo-Pacific.

Though New Zealand’s system of government and fundamental values place it squarely in the Western camp, the strange ANZUS arrangement has allowed New Zealand’s traditional alliance interests to be eclipsed by the need to maintain harmonious New Zealand-China relations. Firms and individuals connected to United Front organizations or Chinese state-owned enterprises have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to New Zealand political parties. With a population of not quite five million people, such sums of money have a disproportionately large impact on political discourse and outcomes. It has been alleged that former Chinese intelligence officers and United Front officials sit among the benches of the New Zealand parliament. New Zealand political figures have studiously avoided criticizing Chinese island-building activity in the South China Sea and have refrained from participating in freedom of navigation operations, despite New Zealand’s own defense white paper citing the fundamental importance of open sea lines of communication. With political interference—a “magic weapon” in the words of Mao and Xi—as valuable a tool as missiles and frigates, the time to re-examine the ANZUS limbo is now.

Yet while New Zealand and the United States have permitted ANZUS to fall into abeyance, bright spots remain. Forward-thinking New Zealand officials like former National party prime minister John Key have been instrumental in building elite consensus to push U.S.-New Zealand relations towards greater cooperation. Initiatives of the Key government like the Wellington declaration of 2010 have provided the foundation for the steady thaw in U.S.-New Zealand relations seen today. New Zealand has maintained itself as an active member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance, recently joining the United States and Australia in banning Huawei from supplying parts for New Zealand’s 5G telecom system. The United States has also permitted New Zealand to rejoin military exercises, notably the Talisman Saber exercise with Australia. These two areas—high-end warfare and anti-information operations—are precisely the domains that a revised ANZUS agreement should address. What is missing is a public agreement to galvanize thawing defense ties and create top-to-bottom alliance solidarity; an essential component in sending a message to China of liberal-democratic solidarity and commitment.

While the traditional ANZUS threat narrative concerned itself with the spread of communist hard power throughout the Indo-Pacific, the cutting-edge political and technological influence operations conducted by China could be the focus of ANZUS 2.0. Already, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States have cooperated as members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance to push back against proposals by Chinese telecom firms to construct 5G internet networks. New Zealand’s cooperation with the United States, Australia, and Japan on revitalizing the obsolete Papuan electrical grid further demonstrates a shared sense of urgency among the ANZUS nations that technology—both foreign infrastructure projects and domestic high-tech projects—is a domain to be contested and protected. However, this urgency has not translated to domestic investment in New Zealand itself. Despite the present ban on Huawei 5G technology, New Zealand agreed in 2017 to permit the creation of a $400 million Huawei cloud computing center in Christchurch.

Though yet to be officially concluded, the cloud computing center comes on the heels of numerous other deals between Huawei and New Zealand telecommunication firms. Other New Zealand firms have done business with Chinese companies implicated in circumventing UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea, while still others have partnered with Chinese aerospace firms. A public political push to revitalize or renew ANZUS should include a commitment among the three nations to coordinate and consult on best practices for foreign investment review, using the committee on foreign investment in the United States (CFIUS) as a model.

Similarly, countering political interference from the United Front should be made a priority in any new ANZUS. While foreign interference has occurred in New Zealand just as in the United States and Australia, the adoption of meaningful countermeasures has not yet been prioritized. United Front organizations have taken advantage of New Zealand electoral laws permitting foreign donations to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to both major political parties. The case of New Zealand National Party MP Jian Yang, a former instructor at Chinese military intelligence universities, is particularly illustrative. Though Yang omitted his connections to Chinese military intelligence and the Chinese communist party on his permanent residency and job applications, the reaction from both sides of New Zealand politics was relatively muted. The near-complete takeover of Chinese-language media in New Zealand by media companies connected to the Chinese communist party has further enabled China to strengthen its voice among the Chinese diaspora population in New Zealand and to shape domestic debate.

A trilateral commitment to revitalizing ANZUS should see all three parties treat Chinese media companies with demonstrable links to United Front organizations as foreign agents. The U.S. treatment of Xinhua and Chinese Global Television could serve as an example; neither company is prohibited from operating in the United States (such a prohibition could be interpreted as anti-democratic), but registration as foreign agents mandates disclosures about ties to the Chinese state and restrictions on access. Australia’s new law on foreign interference, which newly prohibits the theft of trade secrets, foreign interference in domestic political activities, and requires registration of foreign lobbyists, could also function as a model for New Zealand and the members of any ANZUS 2.0.

The traditional domains of warfare must also remain a focus of any new ANZUS. Though New Zealand’s contribution to high-end military operations will remain modest, its participation alongside the United States and Australia will still be of use amidst the strains on the U.S. Pacific Seventh Fleet. New Zealand could be counted among U.S. allies available to “backstop” carrier strike group escort vessel deployments when U.S. or Australian forces are required elsewhere or are damaged, as was the case when the USS Fitzgerald was severely damaged in a 2017 collision. Further normalization of the rotational embedding of New Zealand’s small navy within a larger ANZUS task force could magnify the scope and impact of New Zealand’s naval diplomacy, permitting the allies to deploy jointly with other navies well-versed in operations with the United States, like the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. Australia and the United States could also welcome New Zealand’s aid in the development of the Manus port in Papua New Guinea, an initiative that could lead to the development of an ANZUS-led trilateral capacity building effort in the South Pacific. New Zealand’s participation in the amphibious components of the Talisman Saber exercise could be formalized in the new ANZUS to develop a joint humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capability.

The intensification of Chinese influence campaigns in Australia and New Zealand and military shadowboxing in the South Pacific means that the time has come to remove ANZUS from its limbo. Indo-Pacific allies are natural to question U.S. commitment to the region. Trump’s lack of interest in traveling to annual summits, his mercurial temperament, and his tendency to see regional issues as discrete problems (trade as separate from the military balance of power, for instance) all cast doubt on assurances from U.S. officials that the United States will remain engaged. Hints from President Trump that the United States will lump the fate of Huawei together with Chinese trade negotiations will only threaten to further alienate New Zealand and Australia, which have both undertaken considerable risk in their quest to follow what they likely thought was definitive U.S. policy on the telecom manufacturer.

Australia will undoubtedly have a central coordinating role to play in any effort to revive ANZUS for the present Sino-American competition. Leveraging its status as both the remaining thread in the ANZUS quilt and as the location for recent ANZUS exercises like Talisman Saber, Australia can bridge the gap between the United States’ hopes for a tightened alliance network and New Zealand’s fears about being forced to choose between its lucrative trading relationship with China and its security. Indeed, New Zealand should not view a revived ANZUS as a harbinger of the total dismantlement of the China-New Zealand relationship. Rather than browbeating or public shaming, the United States and Australia will have to quietly work behind the scenes to win over skeptics and build coalitions in the defense, foreign affairs, and business communities for any ANZUS 2.0.

The effort to build a new ANZUS will come alongside junctures faced by other U.S. alliances in the region. Even staunch pro-U.S. officials in allies like the Philippines are demanding a now-or-never clarification of U.S. commitment to the region. The United States should take advantage of this moment to renew or revise agreements with its existing partners to combat Chinese attempts to peel off democratic allies. At the same time, the United States, without framing the present circumstances as America-or-bust, must make it clear to New Zealand that the intensification of both the military competition and rising instances of interference merit a sense of urgency in further warming defense ties.

There can be no new ANZUS if one of the three does not share the same perception of the threat. But New Zealand’s stepped-up participation in Australia-U.S. exercises and its nascent steps to combat Chinese technological influence point to a foundation that can be built upon for the sake of rebirthing an ANZUS to confront the realities of the Indo-Pacific competition that we face today.

Patrick G. Buchan is a fellow with Alliances and American Leadership Project with a focus on Indo-Pacific security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Benjamin Rimland is a research associate with the CSIS Alliances and American Leadership Project.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Benjamin Rimland

Research Associate, Alliances and American Leadership Project

Patrick Gerard Buchan