Speculation was rife earlier this year that Peeni Henare was about to announce his defence policy principles in a stand-alone speech. If that mode of delivery had eventuated, observers would have pounced. Nothing says New Zealand’s external security environment is fine and dandy quite like a Defence Minister choosing People and Infrastructure as the big ideas alongside New Zealand’s interests in the Pacific.
But in a change of plans Henare’s trio of principles and a matching set of underwhelming priorities were rolled into the release of New Zealand’s 2021 Defence Assessment. As was evident in the pre-Christmas launch and the limited media comment which has followed, the picture painted by that new document is bleak.
While the Assessment begins with climate change and strategic competition as the top two problem generators, it’s the second of these which does most of the work. And “strategic competition” is a euphemism. A one sentence summary of the 36-page public version of the Assessment could easily read: China is threatening New Zealand’s interests in the South Pacific.
In fact the Assessment would make us believe that the recent past of the South China Sea will be the near future of the South Pacific. Among the short but startling list of “the most threatening potential developments” to “New Zealand’s defence and security interests” we encounter the following:
“The establishment of a military base or dual-use facility in the Pacific by a state that does not share New Zealand’s values and security interests”, and then “Extra-regional military-backed resource exploitation” which “has increasingly become a feature of activities in the South China Sea, and similar activities could take place in the South Pacific,” and also “greater chances for military confrontation, by both accident and design, and particularly at sea.”
Officials want Cabinet Ministers and commentators to stop treating what goes on in the wider region (now commonly called the Indo-Pacific) as a species of intense strategic competition that is seldom encountered in the Pacific. That means some of the NZDF’s future operations in the immediate region will not be so different to deployments to conflict zones further afield: “This binary is now being eroded,” the writers of the 2021 Assessment argue, “and Defence operations within New Zealand’s immediate neighbourhood will increasingly require the use of more sophisticated military capabilities in support of regional partners.”
This isn’t just a nod to the maritime combat-relevant capabilities that got a rare boost under Ron Mark’s tenure as Defence Minister (especially with the big maritime surveillance decision: the P8s). It also suggests there is a South Pacific justification for what the Assessment calls “capabilities to deliver presence, awareness and response in and beyond the maritime domain.” Why do we see this logical leap of faith when, as the Assessment itself indicates, the Indo-Pacific proper is “the central global theatre for strategic competition?” Didn’t the NZDF’s recent transit of the South China Sea for Five Power Defence Arrangements exercises and further north to interact with US carrier battle groups and to exercise off Guam with the UK’s carrier group tell us where the upgraded frigates and the P8s are in real and actual demand?
One answer is that defence and its close relative foreign affairs, are back in the hands of the Labour Party whose defence sweet spot is unquestionably the Pacific. In 1987, the last Defence White Paper issued under a Labour Prime Minister argued that despite the ANZUS crisis, New Zealand could prove its defence worth by focusing on the South Pacific. In 2000, the newly elected Clark government insisted that the changing shape of the NZDF be decided by Pacific operational requirements. There was a blip nearly twenty years later, when New Zealand First Ministers, who were not shy of using Indo-Pacific strategic logic when it suited, controlled the two leading external facing portfolios. But in 2021 the Pacific has become the main - if not the only - connection point between what Defence wants and what the Minister prefers.
Henare’s version of New Zealand’s Pacific defence posture is: “working together with our Pacific partners to maintain peace and security in our region, and responding to Pacific priorities including: extreme weather events and climate change, transnational crime, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and discrete incidents where required.” Sounds like more of the same right? But that’s a view of the Pacific the Assessment wants to warn us against. And while they are at it, its authors have their sights on another sacred cow: the subordination of New Zealand’s defence policy to its foreign policy. The day after the launch at the Beehive, the Minister resorted to that received wisdom when he was reluctant to answer direct questions about China: the “stance and leadership” on that relationship, he said to Radio New Zealand, was being provided by his colleague Nanaia Mahuta. Even the otherwise robust 2018 Statement of the Ron Mark era has the NZDF promoting New Zealand’s “foreign policy interests.” But the 2021 Defence Assessment breaks some important ground by insisting that New Zealand has identifiable “defence interests.” Hopefully, this point of departure will also help defence planners identify specific military objectives for NZDF operations, and the particular military effects New Zealand’s capabilities need to produce in seeking them. (Ideas of contributing to the rules based order can only get you so far).
At least one of the defence interests laid out in the Assessment has connotations for New Zealand’s military operations which we’ve not seen spelled out in recent decades: “A stable and secure region in which New Zealand has the freedom to act in support of shared interests and values.” Nobody is going to quibble with the first bit: regional stability and security is hardly a revolutionary objective. But New Zealand’s concern that its freedom to act in the region is the significant part. In defence terms, Wellington is saying that it does not want a major power with competing interests and values (guess who?) preventing the NZDF from deploying where it needs to go. At this point more South China Sea parallels emerge: it’s as if New Zealand does not want the PLA’s posture to generate anti-access/ area denial problems for the NZDF and its partners in the Pacific. Is this a fair translation on my part? I think so, because the Assessment also tells us that the establishment of that undesirable military base in the Pacific (as discussed earlier) would:
“fundamentally alter the strategic balance of the region. In addition to crowding out access to limited Pacific infrastructure, such a military facility would enable a greater quantity, quality and diversity of military capabilities to operate in and through the region, as well as potentially supporting grey zone and other activities counter to New Zealand’s interests.”
That’s music to Canberra’s ears which fears that development even more and has been working with the US on Manus Island out of concerns that the PLA may be about to establish a PNG foothold. “New Zealand’s only formal defence ally” will also be happy to see the Assessment recognising the Morrison government’s call that Australia “can no longer rely on a ten-year strategic warning period for a major conventional attack on its territory.” And the United States, (an informal ally?), which is now being referred to as a “critical defence partner”, will be pleased with the argument that Washington “shares New Zealand’s concerns about addressing strategic competition in the Pacific.” Winston Peters, who as Foreign Minister more than once called for America’s help in the Pacific to restore the strategic balance, might even find it within himself to agree.
But what will the current Ardern Cabinet think? There is a good chance that if Ministers use the 2021 Assessment, they will do so selectively to reinforce their claim that the Pacific comes first for New Zealand’s defence policy (and they may even list it above people and infrastructure). But the Assessment process seems unlikely to change their view that, courtesy of the procurement decisions made in the first term, and the changing budgetary priorities of the covid era in the second, defence has already had its big moment for advanced maritime capabilities. Ardern and her colleagues might agree with the Assessment that “key defence and security partners, including both Pacific Island countries and extra- regional partners, are increasingly looking to New Zealand to provide a leading role in pursuing shared security interests in this region.” Yet they might interpret that leadership as requiring a continued emphasis on what the Assessment calls “familiar activities such as disaster response and fisheries patrols” and on the climate change part of the new agenda. They may well wonder if the Defence Assessment has overcooked the Pacific strategic competition argument (the new South China Sea – really?). But if Labour Ministers nonetheless want New Zealand to play a leading defence role in the Pacific, they will want to improve on the tepid and publicity shy response to the latest Solomon Islands crisis.
Robert Ayson is Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.