Amidst the fluster regarding the rise of the so-called Islamic State, observers would be forgiven for thinking that Middle East instability and transnational Islamic radicalisation represent the most daunting threats to New Zealand’s national security interests. Yet, as production of the 2015 Defence White Paper gets underway, it is worth acknowledging the substantial challenges that have emerged in the international security environment of our own region over the past five years. Such reflection is sobering.
As the Ministry of Defence’s own 2014 Defence Assessment notes, the military rise of China has continued apace. Commensurate with its surging economic weight, the PRC is rapidly closing the gap in military spending with the United States. Yet more significant than this quantitative shift is the qualitative change in Beijing’s strategic behavior, characterized by greater assertiveness and a concerning willingness to risk confrontation vis-à-vis its neighbors. This is backed up with an increasingly sophisticated anti-access/area denial force structure that has weakened Washington’s capacity to unilaterally regulate crisis dynamics.
In response to these developments, Washington is adjusting its regional posture, the significance of which appears under-appreciated in Wellington. Strategically, the Asian ‘pivot’ is being transformed by a harder, military-centric vision: the ‘Third Offset Strategy’. The name explicitly recalls previous US attempts to leverage technological superiority to overcome the rising capabilities of the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1970s. Despite nominally lacking a specific target, it is clear that its focus is on containing Beijing’s influence in littoral Asia.
How should the White Paper frame New Zealand’s strategic engagement with these dynamics? One response would be to reject their direct salience to our interests. Some would argue that we don’t have a dog in the fight between Washington and Beijing over regional influence - and that regardless, we’re too small to be of relevance. We should thus stick to our guns - literally - and continue to develop niche capabilities to support low- to medium-intensity multilateral security and relief operations.
This would be a mistake. First, to paraphrase Trotsky, while we might not be interested in strategic competition, strategic competition is interested in us. Though strategic tensions have their locus in littoral Asia, their economic and political ramifications are global. New Zealand’s trade dependency prevents us from feigning disinterest when access to our primary markets and suppliers risks being curtailed. Geographic distance offers only the illusion of security.
Second, we are deeply invested in regional security through our security relationships. Our alliance with Australia lies at the heart of our defence posture, and has historically seen us engage jointly to support regional security from the Malayan Emergency to INTERFET. Similarly, while the MoD’s Defence Assessment asserts the declining formal strategic importance of the Five Powers Defence Arrangements, it acknowledges that it continues to structure our diplomatic contribution to the regional order. While neither New Zealand nor our partners desire to deliberately embroil ourselves in a future security crisis, we must recognize that our efforts to ameliorate regional dynamics bind us all to confronting the prospects of their failure.
Finally, high-intensity strategic competition impacts upon our force structure requirements, whether we like it or not. As our partners bring online unmanned assets, advanced command, control and communications systems, and new logistics methods, the NZDF will face new interoperability demands. What is more, the proliferation of sophisticated weapons systems is blurring the line between low-intensity and high-intensity operations, raising the bar on force structure requirements – a point noted by MoD.
The White Paper needs to emphasize in no uncertain terms the increased high-intensity risks to New Zealand’s national interests. It is important that the public and our security partners know that Wellington appreciates the salience of these security challenges. We also must articulate clearly that this necessitates more intensive international security cooperation and operational planning, in particular with Australia. 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.
This shift in focus will require revising our force structure requirements. While under no illusion regarding our limited weight in the regional balance and the limited domestic enthusiasm for increasing military spending, we must consider adjusting the NZDF’s basic competencies in order to facilitate day-to-day interoperability with our security partners and the scaling up of our capabilities in the future as regional dynamics warrant.
Given our geo-strategic circumstances and the operational requirements of our security partners, a focus should be on expanding our naval combat, littoral operations and maritime surveillance capabilities. Upgrading the Orion patrol aircraft and ANZAC frigates provides a temporary bridge to more effective hard security capabilities, but the potential of these assets is limited - both due to the age of the former, and the legacy of initial design economization with respect to the latter. The acquisition of new frontline assets thus needs to be planned and executed in the coming decade; it is vital that their this process be focused on the challenging international strategic and operational environment that New Zealand faces.
Matthew Hill is completing his PhD studies at Cornell University and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Royal New Zealand Navy Flickr