Matt Hill, in his pithy and neatly-argued post about the regional setting for New Zealand’s 2015 Defence White Paper, is absolutely right that New Zealand’s strategic situation is being very significantly transformed by the escalating strategic rivalry between the US and China over the future Asian strategic order. This marks a fundamental change from the circumstances which have framed New Zealand’s (and Australia’s) defence policies for over 40 years.
Since the early 1970s, the peace and stability of the Asian region has been underwritten by the simple but enormously important fact that US primacy has been uncontested by any other Asian power. That has sharply limited the risk of a major regional conflict which could have profoundly affected our nations’ well-being, which in turn has limited the kinds of wars our militaries have had to be prepared to fight.
Matt I think presupposes that in a more contested Asia, New Zealand’s interests must inevitably be best served by doing what New Zealand has always done before – lending its weight to a coalition of like-minded countries united in defence of a rules-based global and regional order which reflects the values and outlook we share with America, Britain and others, and aims to maximise and perpetuate the distribution of power that sustains them. That idea seems to underlies Matt’s suggestions about how New Zealand’s strategic posture should evolve.
Of course New Zealand has always done that in the past, and it has served New Zealand well, but to assume that it will keep working in future may underestimate the scale of the changes we are now witnessing. The resurgence of major-power strategic rivalry in Asia is itself just a symptom of something much bigger – the largest and fastest shift in the distribution of wealth and power in history.
This shift marks the end of the pattern of wealth-distribution which emerged 200 years ago or more with the industrial revolution, and which, through many trails, created the liberal order we know today. This pattern also fostered the settlement of Australia and New Zealand by Europeans. We regarded it as ‘normal’, but in fact it is very abnormal in the way it saw the relative wealth of nations depend on differences in per-capita productivity rather than on differences in numbers of workers.
Now the more normal correlation between population and wealth is being restored. In future, power will be distributed much more evenly around the world, and much of it will be held by countries with much less commitment to the global liberal order we know and love. Indeed there may be much less of a global order of any kind. Instead we may see series of increasingly self-contained regional orders, of which one of the biggest and most complex will be Asia’s.
And no one can be sure what role America will play in that system. It would be a big mistake to assume that, over the timeframes relevant to the choices New Zealand faces now about its future military capabilities, America will continue to play the same role in Asia as it has for the past century or more. And that means we should be careful not to assume, as I think Matt might do, that supporting US primacy in Asia is the best or only possible option for our future strategic postures.
Certainly we will want America to play the biggest role it can, but the chances that it will succeed in maintaining primacy, no matter how much help it receives from others, are rather low. That means a prudent strategic policy today must do more than consider how New Zealand can best support America to perpetuate the liberal status quo against China’s challenge. It should consider what strategic options are open to New Zealand in a region in which that status quo has evaporated. And that might call for New Zealand to explore very different kinds of strategic responses.
What might they be? So far as alignments are concerned, Wellington might find, in a contested Asia in which Washington plays no major role, having to choose between some unprecedented options. They could include complete neutrality, either alone or in some kind of even closer combination with Australia, or looking beyond Canberra and Washington for new strategic partners. Might Jakarta, for example, become a natural ally in the Asian Century? Or Tokyo?
And as for capabilities, New Zealand, like Australia, faces a rather stark choice. Does it even try to build forces that can deliver any real operational impact in a major Asian conflict, if only by making a valued contribution to a larger coalition? Or does it accept that as its relative strategic weight in Asia declines, New Zealand can no longer afford to play even that kind of limited role? To accept that would mean forgoing an important element of New Zealand’s national identity, but that is what sometimes happens as the world changes.
Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University and can be emailed at Hugh.White@anu.edu.au.
Photo credit: Singaporean Ministry of Defence