Two recent Incline contributions have considered how New Zealand should seek to position itself to meet the challenges of, in Hugh White’s words, an increasingly "contested Asia" where, Matt Hill suggests "while we might not be interested in strategic competition, strategic competition is interested in us".
In response to this strategic competition Hill suggests that we refresh and upgrade the status quo, with an emphasis on the need to increase our interoperability with Australia, mentions the need to support our other security partners (here I read the US) and calls for upping our naval combat, littoral operations and maritime surveillance capabilities. Hill argues that this needs to be done because “we cannot hope to advance our stake in regional security by being a mute witness on the periphery, nor will we be taken seriously as a partner if we are perceived to free ride on the efforts of others”. He notes an increased willingness by China to risk confrontation, and (in somewhat loaded terms) suggests that the significance of the US’s rebalancing is "under-appreciated" in New Zealand.
Despite noting that New Zealand might have to consider that the status quo of American hegemony may someday fade, suggesting possible options of neutrality, beefed up trans-Tasman relations, or reaching out to Jakarta or Tokyo, White nonetheless precedes these suggestions with the statement that “certainly we will want America to play the biggest role it can”. Having warned about being careful of assumptions, here is one that immediately frames our understandings of possible options.
Yet why should we start from the notion that we want America to play the biggest role it can?
Both Hill and White’s discussions are framed by crucial assumptions, which in turn constrain the options that appear to be available. With both authors noting the weighty nature of geopolitical change in the region I agree that New Zealand needs to be proactive in engaging with the dynamism at play. However, in order to do so it first needs to cast off any assumptions about the innate desirability of simply operating within the existing status quo.
To be clear, this is not a 'running away' from the 'realities of power politics'. It is simply an argument that any falling into hackneyed assumptions of ‘USA good’ / ‘opponents bad’ is unnecessarily lazy and runs the risk of closing off options for New Zealand to make a real difference to global security. This is because it not only colours our view of the strategic landscape, but also sets the scene as one of needing to make choices. The kinds of changes that are occurring will not transform the way business and politics is done in the region. Mixtures of liberal, democratic and capitalist practices with state-controlled and authoritarian tendencies are more likely than a clash of bounded ideologies. The complexity afforded by this does not clearly lay out ‘sides’.
Moreover, it would be irresponsible to assume that we have to play the strategic game in the way it is played by the great powers simply because the strategic game is "interested in us". Our role could lie in reframing that game all together – in arguing for a shake-up of strategic and defence priorities in an era of wealth disparity, a collapsing of internal and international orders, and inescapable environmental pressures. By so doing, we could seek ways to engage both China and the US (and thereby to help bring the two together) in attempts to achieve what the Chinese refer to as ‘win-win’. To begin with the assumption that this scenario is not possible is unnecessarily and foolishly short sighted. It was therefore heartening to hear in recent public discussions with the Defence White Paper team that planned upcoming military exercises will seek to engage both Chinese and American personnel.
Indeed, in terms of what I think this means for the 2015 Defence White Paper, New Zealand’s priorities should remain with the South Pacific – particularly the ability to respond to calls for help in the face of state fragility, natural disasters, search and rescue and illegal fishing. Emphasis should be placed on ensuring an up-to-date knowledge of the dynamics at play in the South Pacific, and this also suggests an open—minded engagement with all actors where appropriate. This means we need to become more comfortable with difference and indeed seek out opportunities to address areas of contest. We therefore need to revive our commitments to the UN and continue to build our connections in regional fora such as the ADMM+ as places where the differences in the world may be voiced and confronted. It is by addressing difference rather than immediately assuming there is value in only engaging ‘like-minded’ countries that we will have the best chance for achieving peace and security.
Beth Greener is Associate Professor of International Relations at Massey University. She can emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo credit: New Zealand Defence Force