Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, the Hon Richard Marles MP with the New Zealand Minister for Defence, the Hon Judith Collins, for the inaugural Australia-New Zealand Ministerial Consultations [2+2], in Melbourne. (New Zealand Ministry of Defence)

AUCKLAND — While momentum towards New Zealand joining up as an AUKUS Pillar II partner seems building, the country’s new defense minister tells Breaking Defense that any decision is likely a long time away.

The first briefing of the relatively new, conservative government here on AUKUS took place in late February, during a visit by Australian defense officials to Wellington. But Judith Collins, New Zealand’s Minister of Defence said the discussion was a “background briefing only and not intended to address all of the issues of New Zealand joining.

“It is quite early days for Pillar II for the AUKUS partners, let alone anyone else like us or the Canadians,” she said during a Feb. 29 interview. “We have started that engagement, we want to keep this up and understand further the opportunities for New Zealand.”

The meeting followed the Jan. 31 “2+2” Australia and New Zealand Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ANZMIN) that included Collins, Australia’s Defense Minister Richard Marles and the respective foreign ministers Winston Peters and Penny Wong.

As a sign of how early discussions still are, the February briefing was just between Australian and New Zealand officials rather than with the other AUKUS partners, the US and UK.

“Certainly the other partners to AUKUS are aware we are talking to the Australians about this and I suspect they will see this as a very positive thing for us to engagement with them,” Collins said, “There is no guarantee we will be signing up to AUKUS Pillar II, we’re not even sure if we will be invited to. But what we are doing is trying to work out if it is in our best interest and what does it mean.”

Since the Oct. 14 general election brought in a more conservative coalition, led by Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s National Party with allies from ACT Party and New Zealand First, Wellington has been more open in its support for joining Pillar Two than the previous Labour government.

RELATED: New Zealand’s National Security Strategy: Greater regional presence, Aussie ties, and questions

However, there are concerns that joining a group that is designed to counter Chinese military expansionism in the region — particularly as Pillar One of the agreement sees the US and UK teaming to provide Australia with the capability to operate and build nuclear-powered submarines — is putting New Zealand’s “independent foreign policy” at risk. This is a term commonly referring to New Zealand’s non-alignment with major powers following its exit from the ANZUS Treaty in the 1980s.

Robert Patman, professor of international relations at Otago University told Breaking Defense that “perceptions matter,” and the popular perception of AUKUS is that it is primarily a nuclear-weapons agreement.  He said that both the Pacific Island states and ASEAN remain committed to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and are “uncomfortable about New Zealand’s apparent retreat from its diplomatic brand.”

Peters, the foreign minister, has been visiting Pacific Islands in recent months compiling an impressive array of engagements with foreign representatives. But Patman said that Peters’ desire for closer relations with US “may not sit comfortably with a closer alignment with the Pacific Island states, because some if not all do not accept the paradigm that the US-China rivalry will determine the future of the world.”

For her part, Collins rejects that argument entirely: “We do have an independent foreign policy just like most other countries,” she said, “So the term ‘independent foreign policy’ is somewhat misleading and outdated.

“In terms of how other countries view it, I am sure they don’t worry too much about how we view what they do. We are not stupid people — we understand risks and responsibilities, we are aware of that. Anyone who thinks that New Zealand looking after its security concerns is a problem should really value New Zealand taking a serious line on this.”

However, Patman said that while the new National-led coalition government wants closer alignment with traditional allies such as the UK and US, this will result in “conflicting objectives” in New Zealand’s foreign and defence policy.

Patman added that New Zealand’s relationship with the US and Australia is “already in excellent shape” and does not need AUKUS to enhance it.

Despite the government being critical of the previous Labour government’s approach to foreign and defence policy, Patman said the Coalition “inherited extremely positive bilateral relations between New Zealand and Australia,” that are “in better shape than anytime probably for a decade.”

Defense Investments Likely To Go Down

Plans are already underway for greater levels of cooperation between the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) and Australian Defence Force. That will continue on, regardless of Wellington’s decision on AUKUS, Collins said.

“We are looking at as much interoperability as we possibly can. The Australians want to see us continuing the good work in the Pacific and they see that as valuable for them and for the Pacific,” Collins said.

“We are also looking at procurement and where we can procure either together or that one nation purchases one item and the other purchases the same but working in lockstep. Working together is crucial for us,” she added.

With more integration, it is expected the Australians will expect the NZDF to do more, especially in the Pacific. But it is not clear whether the upcoming Defence Capability Plan (DCP), which will outline priority procurement programs and new capabilities for the NZDF, will be fully funded.

Collins brought forward the publication of DCP to June from an original date in September to speed up the decision-making process, but the government’s first budget due in May is unlikely to provide any additional investment in defense. Instead, the government has called for public spending cuts across all departments, including 7.5 percent from the New Zealand Ministry of Defence and 6.5 percent from the NZDF.

Patman is concerned that the Coalition has not yet committed to increasing New Zealand’s defense spending to the 1.5% promised at the release of the last defense review under Labour in August 2023.

“Strategy is all about means to ends,” Patman said, “There is some nice sounding language, but until the government indicates that it is willing to devote more to the defense budget no amount of identifying positive ends is going to solve the problems that New Zealand faces.”