Upon the arrival in 2012 of the Washington Declaration the National-led government denied that a full restoration of old alliance ties was on the cards. This was “not ANZUS in drag" said then Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman who had signed the new declaration with Leon Panetta. Strictly speaking of course this was eminently so. Unlike Australia, New Zealand is not a formal member of the US alliance system in Asia and nothing over the last few years has changed that fact.
But the flow of high-level American visitors to New Zealand's shores (if by plane, not ship) testifies to the accelerated closeness of what the New Zealand government described in its 2010 Defence White Paper as a "stalwart" partnership. The latest of these arrivals, Admiral Harry B. Harris, is not the first US Pacific Commander to come here from Hawaii in recent times. But his visit has come at an important juncture both for the region and for New Zealand policy.
In terms of the latter, New Zealand defence officials are in the middle of preparing the 2015 Defence White Paper. What Wellington says in that document about maritime territorial tensions in Asia will be keenly watched. Perhaps some pointed comments can be expected from that document after Gerry Brownlee told the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that ‘New Zealand would be pleased to better understand the intentions of countries undertaking reclamation activities’.
Strong commentary on these matters can certainly be expected from the imminent Defence White Paper from New Zealand’s leading security partner. And as it so happens, Admiral Harris was in Wellington en route to Australia where the United States is currently participating in Talisman Sabre, the biennial joint exercise that brings together forces from the two long-standing formal allies. And for the first time in a long time, New Zealand is also significantly involved. ANZUS in drag? Perhaps not in the complete sense, but at least one stocking is on.
The domestic coverage of that exercise has focused on the operational and training benefits, which will accrue to the New Zealand Defence Force. These are not to be sniffed at, especially because this large-scale exercise exposes New Zealand's participating forces (which include over 500 personnel) to a level and complexity of military interaction that is well beyond what this country normally experiences. But the 2015 edition of Talisman Sabre also brings in broader geopolitical implications which are worth noting. This is because of another participant, Japan, which is a fast growing military partner for Australia and America's leading ally in Asia.
Japan just happens to be involved in an ongoing strategic tussle with China over maritime territorial issues in the East China Sea. Its involvement makes it all too easy to paint the exercise as a signal to Beijing that there is a US-led coalition in Asia which is increasingly unhappy with its behaviour and which may be prepared to do something about it. To the extent that it exists, this is a coalition of maritime democracies that Tony Abbott's government seems quite happy to identify itself with. But, as one might expect, this would be a connection that the Key government would deny it is party to.
This means that the old ANZUS in drag formulation is becoming less tenable as an interesting dinner-time topic of conversation. The era when New Zealand's strategic alignment could be defined against the backdrop of this old trilateral grouping has drifted away. This is not because of the after-effects of what happened to US-NZ relations in the mid-1980s. Instead in 2015 New Zealand needs to navigate a multi-player Asia where the question is whether we wish to be seen as part of a broader US-led (and Australian assisted) network which China may come to regard as an Asia-Pacific NATO. That means a whole different type of ball-game. And as an important fact on the ground, New Zealand’s participation in Talisman Sabre may say almost as much about where New Zealand stands as the words that will appear in our forthcoming White Paper.