In its overview of the Northeast Asian strategic environment, New Zealand’s last Defence White Paper recognised the significance of China’s rise as an economic and military power. In so doing, it drew attention to some of the possible consequences of that rise. One of these was that there “there will be a natural tendency for [China] … to define and pursue its interests in a more forthright way”.
As this blog has noted in several posts, this tendency has been readily apparent in relation to the South China Sea; particularly since 2012 when China seized control of Scarborough Shoal after a stand-off with the Philippines and most recently with its extensive land reclamation efforts and subsequent construction of civil and military infrastructure on the resulting artificial islands. These activities are occurring, China contends, in what are indisputably Chinese sovereign territorial waters. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that New Zealand’s 2014 Defence Assessment (released in May 2015) notes that efforts ‘to lay claim to contested territory via regular patrolling, occupation of islands, and overflights, increases the risks of minor clashes escalating into more serious conflict.’ Prime Minister John Key and Foreign Minister Murray McCully have both made similarly worried comments in recent months.
One of these annual exercises is ‘Bersama Shield’. New Zealand’s participation in Bersama Shield 2016 was described as “baffling” in a recent infamous Xinhua commentary which adopted a generally critical and warning tone towards New Zealand statements on the situation in the South China Sea. In his response, Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee said that the exercise was not being conducted in an area of the South China Sea which is disputed; that the “NZDF will not be exercising or transiting through disputed territory”; and that New Zealand has “done [it] for 35 years”. (The last comment is a little puzzling, of course, since the FPDA has been around for almost 45 years and Exercise Bersama Shield has only been held since 2004, but we know what he means.)
Although Southeast Asian states have largely had favourable perceptions of the FPDA because it is not viewed as being directed against a third party, the recent incident suggests this may no longer be the case as far as China is concerned. Indeed, Beijing now seems to have suspicions that many defence relationships are in some way directed against it. Should New Zealand be concerned about this? How important is the FPDA to New Zealand?
The answer to the first question is no. The Xinhua commentary, as is well known, had a very short shelf-life. It was soon removed and there has been no subsequent public, official comment by China. There are no MOFA spokesperson's remarks about it and, indeed, no references at all to Bersama Shield, or the FPDA for that matter, on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website. This suggests that it is not a substantive issue in the bilateral relationship. Ironically, the only remaining trace of the incident in the Chinese press is a Global Times story on the exercise, which is a near world-for-word reproduction of the NZDF's own press release on the subject - "NZDF to Train with Southeast Asian Partners". It seems unlikely that the FPDA, and its schedule of exercises, is going to become one of those ‘tests’ which China might set New Zealand in a period of increasing US-China rivalry. Indeed, rather than concern about the FPDA, it seems much more likely that China would be unhappy with the NZDF contingent's subsequent visit to the Philippines for ‘joint engagement activities’ with the Philippines air force and the decision to send an observer (even just one) to a US-Philippines Balikatan exercise going on at the same time. This especially the case given the increasingly acrimonious relationship between Beijing and Manila and the latter's closer military ties with the US and other regional powers.
The test that really matters, it could be argued is of New Zealand’s loyalty and commitment to the FPDA and, by extension, to Malaysia and Singapore who attach some importance to the Arrangements and with whom New Zealand has an enduring partnership. In the 2010 Defence White Paper the FPDA’s significance to New Zealand was characterised more as a valuable diplomatic link to Southeast Asia than as a strategic instrument. That said, the White Paper also said that the FPDA, along with other structures such as the ARF and the ADMM Plus, plays a role in contributing to regional stability and prosperity. How the FPDA will be described in the new Defence White Paper (expected to be released in a matter of days) remains to be seen. Some see the 2014 Defence Assessment’s less effusive language as pointing the way. It is noteworthy, however, that the NZDF press release on its recent Southeast Asian activities clearly stated that: “The NZDF commitment to the FPDA is strong and our ability to operate alongside FPDA partner-nations is critical to successfully providing security in the Southeast Asian region.”
The FPDA is also clearly valued by New Zealand’s trans-Tasman neighbour. In Australia’s recently released 2016 Defence White Paper the FPDA is described as “an enduring and important feature of Australia’s efforts to advance its interests by working with partners to promote security in South East Asia.” Although it may have been established 45 years ago, it could be argued that the sort of mini-lateral, practical defence cooperation which the FPDA entails is precisely what the current regional environment needs and that it ably complements the more dialogue-focused parts of the regional security architecture.
Mark Rolls is Director of the International Relations and Security Studies Programme at the University of Waikato. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo credit: Royal Australian Air Force