Although it’s peculiar that we find strategic differences between Canberra and Wellington peculiar, disagreements may become starker and more costly as hard power reemerges as a driving force in international affairs. What more, then, might Australia and New Zealand do to promote strategic convergence where we can and to avoid harming each other’s interests when we can’t?
It shouldn’t surprise when two countries draw dissimilar policy conclusions from an essentially shared reading of global trends. Nations quite reasonably adopt divergent solutions to problems they’ve broadly convergent views about. Our circumstances provide different options and constraints to a ‘near neighbor’ 2,000 km away with a population five times smaller, an economy 10 times smaller, and a strategic culture that sometimes seems more Nordic than part of the Anglosphere. The way Washington has, ‘in pivot mode’, welcomed Wellington partly back into the military fold without requiring it to ‘repent’ its nuclear-free policy blinds us to the Cold War-era ANZUS row. References to ‘family’ and ‘the spirit of Gallipoli’ reflect genuine closeness but can let relationship managers ‘wallow in their comfort zones’ rather than innovate.
Andrew Davies and Robert Ayson detect divergence on the capability and political fronts. As Australia lifts its defence spending and invests in stealth fighters, large submarines and systems able to operate towards the top end of modern combat, interoperability may become more challenging even in regional stabilisation operations and other lower-end missions where we’ll need to work together. And differing policy approaches to handling China’s rise were highlighted by Prime Minister Abe’s recent visits to Australia and NZ, with their emphasis on security matters in one country and trade and totemic issues (such as whaling) in the other.
Such divergence seems set to grow. That’s partly due to the apparent retirement of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘hide your strength, bide your time’ axiom. Beijing is ‘nibbling’ to exercise control over islands and seas to which it claims historic title—using various forms of pressure below the threshold of applying direct military force to accumulate gains and undermine US assurance. But NZ doesn’t want to publicly rebuke such calibrated coercion. Of course, China’s fuelling NZ’s dairy and forestry boom. Still, our exports are more concentrated there than NZ’s (and while soft commodities are more exposed to a swift Chinese-burn than steel or coal, demand should remain robust as consumer bases in emerging economies grow).
An exchange of posts on what each partner wants from the relationship updates the old ‘Aussies are from Mars, Kiwis are from Venus’ trope: Rob Ayson hopes for someone who ‘won’t get too carried away’ in the Indo-Pacific while Peter Jennings imagines racier trilateral cooperation as alliance partners rather than ‘close friends’. Peter warns the ANZAC alliance will continue to shrink if we don’t each get more out of it—including in our neighbourhood. But even there, the regional stabilisation missions fostering habits of operational cooperation have ended.
Both governments should use some of the resources freed by the end of such operations to broaden and better coordinate our efforts to promote stability and growth in nearby countries. That would include aligning and, where possible integrating, our Defence Cooperation Program (DCP) with NZ’s tiny Military Assistance Program (MAP). But it should extend well beyond that. NZ led us in reintegrating its development specialists and diplomats in pursuit of its national interest. It also has an interest in conflict prevention (and achieved the peacemaking breakthrough we couldn’t in Bougainville 17 years ago). Although helping to shape a peaceful and prosperous immediate strategic environment isn’t acting as anyone’s ‘deputy-sheriff’—we do so for our own reasons—our roles as regional security managers appear increasingly important to Washington.
Australia’s commitment last month to renew and modernise the Pacific Patrol Boat (PPB) Program provides a specific area for greater cooperation. NZ already supports one of the 22 PPBs, due to its defence responsibilities for the Cook Islands, but might also assist the other three Polynesian PPB users it has close ties with. An evolved maritime security program also requires more aerial surveillance. Although humanitarian in scope, the program provides a low-key enduring strategic presence across our shared maritime approaches and eases the patrol burden on our navies.
Other opportunities include aligning our exercise programs even more closely; making scarce capabilities available to each other (Wellington’s already generous with its sealift ship, HMNZS Canterbury, and B757 long-range VIP/transport aircraft); cooperating on capability sustainment and upgrades where possible; sharing the burden of Antarctic logistics; and nurturing closer intelligence exchange. The ADF and NZDF must remain interoperable for credible regional operations as our LHDs near service. And after a decade of reform in both countries, we probably have lessons to share.
None of those ventures would ensure strategic convergence. But we could do more to manage differences and avoid the sort of mutual damage we inflicted on each other in the mid 80s. We must resist undercutting each other when we hold strong contrary views (say if Wellington was determined to impose sanctions on a state we felt should be inside the tent). And we must provide space for dialogue to narrow such gaps. A framework for our militaries to consult more closely has worked since 2011. But since key issues of strategic divergence sit above even senior officers’ and officials’ pay-grade, clever ‘summitry’ remains crucial. (One idea at the recent 1.5 track dialogue in Wellington was for Canberra to periodically invite NZ leaders to attend joint NSC sittings.)
White Paper preparations in each country will provide the means, motive, and opportunity to sharpen the focus of future ANZAC cooperation. We can’t afford to waste them.
Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.