New Zealand watchers of Australia’s defence policy won’t be surprised by Graeme Dobell’s point that alongside New Zealand and the United Kingdom, Japan now rates as one of Canberra’s second-tier partners. But more intriguing is the notion that Japan has now taken New Zealand’s old place in the triangle with the United States which is the ‘foundation for Australian defence thinking’. If that doesn’t grab attention in Wellington, then the explanation will: New Zealand’s defence capability is apparently ‘grinding to a standstill’.
Graeme attributes that bold view to a post written by ASPI colleague Andrew Davies after the recent 1.5 Track Dialogue held at Victoria University. In reality, Andrew doesn’t go that far, but he does argue that New Zealand’s forces will struggle to operate with a modernising ADF.
Retaining that ability won’t come cheap to Wellington, but as I noted in an earlier post, the Key government has signaled a willingness to commit additional funds for defence. And there are signs the longer-term challenges aren’t being forgotten. New Zealand’s refreshingly concise (and anti-standstill) Defence Capability Plan contains the following warning from the Defence Minister:
The period following 2020 will be a challenging one. Work has commenced on options to replace our C-130H and Boeing 757 fleets in the early 2020s. This will require a significant investment. The P-3K2 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft and the ANZAC frigates will also reach the end of their service life in the 2020s.
In the shorter term, it’s difficult to imagine why a New Zealand government would be finding money for a major combat-systems upgrade of its two ANZAC frigates if there was little interest in being able to work with traditional partners. As the press release announcing this decision suggests, that group extends beyond Australia.
In the meantime, there’s one Australia–New Zealand gap about which we should be concerned. But it’s a political one. To see it, we need only compare the recent visits to both countries by Japan’s confident Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The warm-up visit to Auckland and Christchurch was over in the blink of an eye. But for those watching, two issues dominated the media coverage. One involved New Zealand’s concerns about Japan’s whaling policy. Had those gone un-mentioned by the New Zealand Prime Minister some awkward questions would have been raised domestically with an election looming. The second issue was Japan’s approach to the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. As I suggested before Mr Abe’s arrival, the undemanding free trade agreement that he was about to sign on the Australian side of the ditch had taken the pressure off Japan in terms of agricultural reform. And so that proved to be.
But the New Zealand visit did produce something unusual from the Key government: a publicly-available statement about foreign policy. This rare document includes an endorsement of closer New Zealand–Japan defence cooperation. Yet the modest details are hardly the stuff of a rapidly evolving partnership-cum-alliance. And the line on Japan’s changing approach to military affairs seemed designed to leave the reader guessing about Wellington’s real level of enthusiasm. ‘New Zealand appreciated’, the statement reads, ‘the issuing of Japan’s policy of “Proactive Contribution to Peace” based on the principle of international cooperation, including the recent updating of its framework for security.’
I suspect ‘appreciated’ is somewhere on the scale between ‘noted’ and ‘welcomed’. It’s some distance away from ‘adored’. I use that last piece of hyperbole deliberately because Abe didn’t just get a welcome mat in Canberra but a trail of rose petals leading from the tarmac to Parliament House.
No such parallel was possible in New Zealand and not just because the size of Abe’s plane made a Wellington visit logistically challenging. John Key’s government argues that it can enjoy good relations with all the major players, and gives the impression that it doesn’t have to make trade-offs between them. But it knows that siding too closely with Japan on issues that divide North Asia will have long-term costs for its relations with China.
In a recent speech on foreign policy, (for which a script hasn’t been released and in which Australia warranted scarcely a mention) Mr Key said that New Zealand enjoys ‘different’ relations with China and the United States and that this arrangement worked fine. But Wellington would be reluctant to test that shaky logic by aligning itself with Tokyo in the same way that it has been aligning itself with Washington.
By contrast, Canberra is standing alongside Tokyo in more obvious ways. I don’t share Peter Jennings’ confidence on this score. The Abbott government is buying into the toxic mess of tensions between Japan and China. And its actions could make Australia a big obstacle to the types of regional relations that New Zealand would like to see these southern parts of the Asia-Pacific region enjoy with the more northern portions.
That’s the trans-Tasman interoperability problem I’m most worried about. And it was for me the most revealing finding of the Australia–New Zealand 1.5 Track Dialogue.
Robert Ayson is professor of strategic studies at Victoria University of Wellington. Image courtesy of Flickr user Emre Simtay.