It takes a lot for me to get focused on questions of methodology. But my interest was piqued by this week’s media coverage of the Ministry of Defence’s thinking as it prepares a new Defence Assessment (normally the part way mark towards a new Defence White Paper). It wasn’t surprising to know that with the increased regional competition between China and the US, among other factors, defence officials judge that New Zealand’s security environment is deteriorating. As David Capie has suggested, that point should hardly be news to anyone. Instead my attention was drawn to another quote from the video (which I have not seen, and that has since been removed from public view): “New Zealand’s defence policy approach should shift from a predominantly reactive risk management-centred approach to one based on a more deliberate and proactive strategy, with explicitly prioritised policy objectives.”
Combining that methodological point together with a less positive security environment can be crudely translated as follows: New Zealand’s defence policy will be less about managing a wide range of risks and more focused on efforts to forestall, deter or defeat, specific threats. You might think I am rushing to an outlandish summation out of sync with the way New Zealand thinks about the options available to it. But other parts of the official system are thinking this way too. A few days ago, Andrew Little, argued in an address hosted by the Centre for Strategic Studies that there were “four premises” for a much needed “conversation on national security.” The first of these deserves careful consideration: “New Zealand faces threats to physical and economic security, and social institutions from forces and interests that would do us harm.”
Little’s second stop was to note that: “Great powers are focussed on our Pacific neighbourhood, which was once described as an incredibly benign strategic environment.” That was a Labour Party Cabinet Minister drawing a line under the famous comment from the one and only Helen Clark. Two decades later the Ardern government isn’t just saying that strategic competition is a complicating factor leading to greater uncertainty in the region. That competition is increasingly being portrayed (and named) as a threat to New Zealand’s interests.
The third may sound like a comment on risk rather than threat (because it begins with the current pandemic), but it ends up focusing our attention on actors with malign intent who are ready to exploit the vulnerabilities of an open society like New Zealand: “The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically accelerated changes to the ways we work with connected technologies,” Little observed, “but the cyber threats we face are growing.”
These problems aren’t all made of the same cloth. Current terror threats – and the recent instances of terrorism in New Zealand – have us concerned about some of the smallest of non-state actors (individual extremists). By contrast, great power competition is a problem monopolised by the biggest states. Cyber threats are a mixture: some emanate from individuals and private sector actors, but others are directed or facilitated by state actors. Wearing his GCSB Ministerial hat in July, Little announced in July that “New Zealand has established links between Chinese state-sponsored actors known as Advanced Persistent Threat 40 (APT40) and malicious cyber activity in New Zealand.”
At least some of this threat stuff may seem to be statement of the obvious. Times are changing and not for the better. But we need to come back to that methodology question. Does New Zealand have a way of dealing with national security that concentrates attention on “forces and interests that would do us harm?” There were 34 times in Little’s speech that the words “threat” or “threats” were enunciated. If you’re a word nerd like me and want to count, the score for “risk” or “risks” was a paltry half dozen. But almost by obligation, Little cited New Zealand’s “ ‘all risks - all hazards’ framework” which involves an heroically comprehensive appraisal of “all significant risks to New Zealanders and the nation.”
Some of these challenges (including severe drought for example) suit a risk management approach. The same goes for at least some of the issues that the Defence Force is being asked to prepare for including the consequences of climate change in the Pacific. But risk management doesn’t quite explain the exercises that New Zealand’s forces were undertaking recently off Guam and for their transit through the South China Sea. Those are arenas where threats of organised violence are part of the scenery.
And that brings us closer to the threat-based planning that the Ministry of Defence appears to be hinting at. The Professional Journal of the Royal New Zealand Navy, which also appears to have gone offline, recently published an article by a senior defence official. The contents of that piece line up with the video excerpts reported yesterday. The author suggests that the emphasis on risk has reduced the room for defence policy as a “vehicle for the deliberate and proactive promotion of New Zealand’s national security interests.” In the absence of a “benign strategic environment” (an argument which also lines up with the comment from Little), that mismatch is even more of a problem. New Zealand needs to adapt to the world prefigured in the recent defence and security reviews published by Australia and the United Kingdom, the official implies. In the case of the former, attention is drawn to Canberra’s judgement “that it cannot rely on a ten-year strategic warning time for a major conventional attack against Australia.”
That change in Australian thinking is no small issue for treaty ally New Zealand. The Ardern government’s 2018 Strategic Defence Policy Statement states that “New Zealand remains committed to responding immediately should Australia be subject to an armed attack.” That takes us well into the threats territory. And it gives us one more reason to wonder if the prevailing risks-based approach to New Zealand’s national security policy is fit for purpose.
Image: RNZN ships Te Kaha and Aotearoa take part in the Bersama Gold FPDA exercise in Southeast Asia recently.