The Australian Army can find positive things to say about its Kiwi counterpart, usually in a sardonic tone. My favourite in this version of an Oz Army compliment: ‘The Maori Army? Better than Gurkhas! They bring their own officers and you don’t have to pay them’.
In the South Pacific, we can add to those assets the fact that the Maori Army can sing while the Australian Army has a hard time just chanting. The Kiwi cultural feel for the region can matter. In East Timor, the Australian Army on foot was known for its sunglasses. The Kiwis stomped on the habit because of their awareness of the need for eye contact when out amongst the people.
The NZ Army is admired for doing what it does on a shoestring. The other side of the same budgetary coin is that it’s derided for bludging off others when it does turn up at a job—looking to fellow forces to overcome Kiwi deficiencies in transport and kit.
The Australian and New Zealand militaries have had a lot to do with each other in what have been long-term jobs in Bougainville, Timor and the Solomons. The old bonds have been burnished by new experiences.
Add to that regional list, a short-term commitment to Tonga in 2006. After the riot that devastated Nuku’alofa, a small Australian force deployed under New Zealand command. The Tonga operation was judged a quick success but there was some Australian muttering about the tight rules of engagement that Wellington imposed on its troops, risking failure because what was to be a show of force might have been exposed as ‘a feint of force’.
The Australian and NZ armies have grown apart, according to Neil James of the Australia Defence Association, who has served as the senior Australian officer on exchange with the NZDF. Up until the 1980s, he notes, NZ Army officers got much of their early education on Australian soil, at Portsea or Duntroon. The two armies might work beside each other, but the last time they fielded a combined group in the field was a combined signals unit in 1993 during the Cambodia peace operation:
My point about the two armies growing apart is as much a personal, cultural and doctrinal one as it is an operational one. From 1911 to the mid 1980s the vast majority of Kiwi officers trained in Australia—and for those at Duntroon this was four years of close bondage with their Australian counterparts. Backed up by continuing close personal and professional relationships throughout their careers in both peacetime exchange postings, closely integrated overseas deployments (Malaya, Borneo, Vietnam, the ANZUK brigade in Singapore, SEATO, etc), and ANZUS exercises in both countries and Hawaii. This no longer happens. But even allowing for the nuclear imbroglio, the Kiwis began to resist joint deployments in UN peacekeeping after Cambodia because they felt that NZ did not get sufficient diplomatic recognition internationally when ‘submerged’ in larger Australian contributions.
James says if the two sides were serious about closer cooperation they could introduce some small admin changes that would signal a larger intent, such as making travel between the two countries a charge against the domestic not the international budget. As well, Australia should no longer charge New Zealand for sending officers for education in Oz:
The funding issue for Kiwis training in Australia is a delicate one. Our economic rationalist bean counters insist the Kiwis pay their way (as Singapore and Brunei do). They do not qualify for Defence Co-operation Program subsidy and would be insulted by the suggestion they do. At least the NZDF would. But they cannot now afford to send most of their officer cadets and staff college students to Australia. This is having detrimental long-term effects to both ADF-NZDF inter-operability and to the wider strategic relationship.
I’ve argued that Australia should accept that the Melanesian Arc is not so much the ‘arc of instability’ as our ‘arc of responsibility’ (PDF).
The Responsibility tag is far more than a proposal or an idea: it’s a description of what has actually happened in the Arc in recent decades. By its actions, Australia has clearly assumed the responsibility. And like it or not, New Zealand has had to come along—as it will be asked to do again in the future as the regional partner. This is the reality of what ‘best mates’ means for New Zealand in the South Pacific; the Kiwis will have a role in Melanesia because that is where Australia’s vital interests are eternally engaged.
By its actions, Australia (with New Zealand’s support) has demonstrated the ambition and the ambit of its security guarantee to the countries of the Arc. This is the enduring message of the different experiences in Bougainville, Timor and Solomon Islands. Those deployments also offer diverse models that can be drawn on for future needs. And, as Tonga showed, that security guarantee can extend to the whole of the South Pacific. The Australian guarantee to protect the Islands’ external security has turned into a far broader guarantee of internal security and stability—even into some form of commitment to the well being of the people; that is certainly the RAMSI model in Solomon Islands.
As Australia does its own version of the regional pivot post-Iraq and Afghanistan, there would always have been plenty to talk about in defining the future needs and demands involved in the ‘best mates’ relationship. What’s also changed is that the silences and the gaps in that Canberra–Wellington discussion can no longer be blamed on the US and thus easily avoided.
As the previous column discussed, the resurrection of the NZ alliance with the US will bring some long-taboo topics back to the table. Not least will be the argument about New Zealand as strategic liability, not asset, for Australia. If you ever want to see Paul Dibb spit chips, get him to explain his ‘strategic liability’ views of the Kiwis. Paul’s perspective was formed by fire during his time as a Defence Deputy Secretary and it’s a reminder that all the bitterness over the destruction of ANZUS is not quite spent in Canberra. Nor the doubts about Kiwi reliability.
For Australia, having two bilateral alliances—with the US and New Zealand—was both costly and complicated. But it also had some distinct advantages which are well understood in Canberra, even if they’re seldom acknowledged publicly.
In 1985 and 1986, Canberra argued that New Zealand should remain within ANZUS. But Australia wouldn’t push that view at the expense of any damage to its alliance with the US. Canberra, formally, said it wouldn’t mediate between Washington and Wellington. But any act to banish the Kiwis shouldn’t be seen as irrevocable: at some future date the third leg of ANZUS could be restored. For the time being, Australia would have two alliances—one with the US and one with New Zealand, but the two wouldn’t touch or intermingle. The breach meant that Australia and New Zealand were spared any real need to talk about a proper alignment, even merging, of their military capabilities. New Zealand’s status as alliance pariah, courtesy of its nuclear purity, drew clear boundary lines, preventing any discussion of deeper military integration with Australia. Any such move would bump up against the other, more important bilateral alliance with the US.
In his usual measured manner, Jim Rolfe, in 2007, outlined the Kiwi perspective on Canberra’s comfort with the two alliance structure that treated New Zealand as mates with limited privileges:
Many New Zealand officials believe that Australia is happy to have New Zealand out of the ANZUS system because this allows Australia to deal with the US on a bilateral basis rather than through the multilateral forum of ANZUS, in which its voice was diluted by New Zealand’s. There are also assertions that Australia is more restrictive in its dealings with New Zealand ‘to protect US interests’ than are either the United Kingdom or Canada. New Zealand officials also believe that the intelligence and information-sharing system between the five states (‘five eyes’) has on many topics turned into a ‘four eyes’ system, restricting the information to Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the US. Whether or not these assertions and beliefs are objectively accurate, they colour the relationships, especially that between New Zealand and Australia.
The colour of the relationship has changed recently. New Zealand is back as a de facto US ally and all can now be discussed. Canberra and Wellington can no longer use Washington as the excuse. The times—and economic necessity—mean Australia and New Zealand are again thinking about closer military cooperation and coordination, and even starting to ponder where the bilateral can reach towards trilateral.
The bilateral still has a lot of room for growth as the joint review of the Australia–New Zealand defence relationship makes clear.
Neil James says the two countries are very similar, but their differences have significant strategic policy effects:
We are a continent, they are two islands a long way from anywhere significant (including us). A 3000 nautical mile circle centred on Darwin runs through the DMZ on the Korean Peninsula, whereas a 3000 nautical mile circle centred on Wellington runs through Darwin.
They largely see themselves as a bi-cultural country and society whereas we see ourselves as a multi-cultural one. They strongly identify themselves as a South Pacific country whereas we see ourselves as an Asia-Pacific (and now Indo-Pacific) one. In a very similar manner to Ireland, and to some extent Canada, it is just too easy to bludge on the bigger neighbour between you and any possible existential or other serious military threat.
To illustrate the continuing gaps in the bilateral defence relationship, consider what Australia and New Zealand aimed for militarily as they emerged from their moment of greatest peril in the 20th century. The 1944 ANZAC Pact was what Australia and New Zealand thought they needed to do to respond to the hard lessons taught by Japan. None of the military aims outlined in the Pact have been met and today’s bureaucrats are aware of its existence but little driven by its provisions.
The treaty calls call for permanent machinery for military collaboration and cooperation:
- continuous consultation in all defence matters of mutual interest
- the organisation, equipment, training and exercising of the armed forces under a common doctrine
- joint planning
- interchange of staff
- the co-ordination of policy for the production of munitions, aircraft and supply items, and for shipping, to ensure the greatest possible degree of mutual aid consistent with the maintenance of the policy of self-sufficiency in local production.
Not one of these aims could be marked as met. Looking over the 70 years to the ANZAC Pact and at the joint defence review of a year ago is to see recurrent hints of the eternal tension for Wellington between being kindred yet Kiwi: the ‘best mates’ versus the Kiwi Commandment (get the most possible from Oz, give away the least possible sovereignty).
The kindred yet Kiwi tension explains much that doesn’t happen between the militaries of Australia and New Zealand.
Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.