When Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee left for China earlier this week, he said the aim of his visit was to gain a better understanding of China’s views on regional and global issues. What he forgot to mention is that he would be giving one of the most important indications of the Key government’s thinking about the shape of the emerging Asia-Pacific security order.
Mr. Brownlee’s speech to China’s National Defence University is a noteworthy one in that it provides the most detail yet of how New Zealand sees China’s role in global and regional security. There are plenty of compliments. China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) is described as ‘having demonstrated its capacity as a responsible world actor’ in numerous disaster relief operations and the MH-370 search mission. There is a nod to Chinese participation in counter-piracy operations, and its leading role in UN peacekeeping, including providing force protection to NZDF personnel taking part in the mission in South Sudan. Closer to home the PLA’s participation in Exercise Tropic Twilight in the Cook Islands is highlighted. ‘We see real value in working together with partners such as China to help build capacity and resilience in South Pacific communities.’
The pattern of defence cooperation set out here still comes way short of the deep relationships that New Zealand has with its traditional partners. That is, of course, nothing surprising. But this speech is the first time we can recall seeing a Cabinet Minister comparing New Zealand’s defence relations with China and the United States. And while many of the positive noises about China’s emergence as a partner for New Zealand will please Beijing, we also detect a conscious effort to send some sharper messages to China, which should be welcomed in Washington.
For example, Mr. Brownlee warns that cyber threats are ‘growing markedly, both in quantity and variety’ and says ‘all states need to recognise their shared interests and respond effectively to malicious activity.’ Beijing will know who he has in mind.
Turning to the South China Sea, an issue of particular sensitivity, Mr. Brownlee calls for ‘measures to build an open and inclusive regional order where security, freedom of navigation, and overflight, and open trade routes are managed in accordance with international laws and norms.’ This language is considerably more favourable to Washington’s view of the situation. In another message to China’s decision-makers Brownlee also states that New Zealand ‘opposes actions that undermine peace and erode trust' and repeats the phrase he first used at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in May, that ‘big countries are made much bigger, in every sense of the word, by recognising their strengths and confidently sharing and defusing concerns of smaller countries.’
It does not stop there. As well as restating New Zealand’s support for the right of countries to access international dispute settlement mechanisms, the speech adds that it is important for states to ‘respect the outcome of such processes’, something of note given the pending decision in the Philippines arbitration case against China. And speaking in a country which likes to talk about its "core interests", Brownlee indicates that New Zealand has one of those too by noting this country’s claim to the Ross Dependency.
The speech also provides some interesting pointers on what to expect in the forthcoming Defence White Paper. In terms of defence relationships, China may well be depicted as an area of significant growth for New Zealand. We expect language that encourages other countries to view the PLA as a legitimate partner, although more on the softer side of security than on issues relating to combat. But we also detect a worried tone about China’s role in maritime tensions in the Asia-Pacific. And in this context in particular, New Zealand is likely to signal the importance of America’s continuing role. Beijing will not have missed the line in Brownlee’s speech which endorses the US “rebalance” as “a positive factor” for regional security, and neither of course, will Washington.
Photo credit: Ministry of National Defence of the People's Republic of China.