WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday raised the possibility of New Zealand and other nations taking part in the AUKUS defense pact, cooperation that could rile Wellington's key trade partner China.
"The door's very much open for New Zealand and other partners to engage as they see appropriate going forward," Blinken said, as Wellington mulls cooperation on non-nuclear aspects of the joint Australia-U.K.-U.S. accord.
New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins on Wednesday said New Zealand was "open to conversations" about a possible role in AUKUS, so long as it did not relate to the development of nuclear-powered submarines.
New Zealand has been nuclear-free since the mid-1980s.
Instead, officials appear to be eying cooperation on defense technologies such as cyber, artificial intelligence and hypersonic weapons, which fall under the AUKUS agreement's so-called "pillar two."
New Zealand and Australia are the main allies of the United States in the South Pacific.
But New Zealand has recently been accused of putting its trading relationship with China ahead of its friendships with fellow Five Eyes spy group members the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia.
Beijing has vehemently opposed AUKUS, describing the pact as destabilizing for the region.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said that "nothing has been agreed to" on AUKUS yet, and the country's Cabinet would have to consider any proposals before any agreement is made.