Building an Australia-New Zealand alliance fit for the 21st Century
2 Feb 2024| and

Yesterday’s 2+2 ANZMIN meeting of Australian and New Zealand foreign and defence ministers in Melbourne will be viewed as a natural part of an alliance that evokes memories of the Anzacs at Gallipoli and was crystallised in the aftermath of World War II and beginning of the Cold War with the 1951 ANZUS security treaty.

The fact it is the inaugural meeting will surprise many. Australia and New Zealand are such longstanding allies and comrades-in-arms that it’s easy for both sides of the Tasman to take the relationship for granted, focusing on bilateral irritants rather than the overwhelming convergence of interests, values and trust between the two nations. The meeting was, therefore, an important step in aligning the historic depth of this partnership with a clear strategic vision for the future, notably in our region but also to sustain a global system where the rules and values both countries have held dear will not only survive but thrive.

The two nations came together in 1951 because of threats they saw, primarily in the Pacific. But after several generations of relative stability, we are now in such unstable times that the reasons for the alliance’s formation are once again top of mind—though today they are more global. As New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, said during Thursday’s press conference, neither he nor any of his ANZMIN colleagues had faced a period as threatening to our security and democratic values as the one we face today.

From a New Zealand perspective, the inaugural ANZMIN provided an early chance for the new coalition government to present with a single voice how it sees the challenges in the strategic environment. Perhaps more importantly, it gave them an opportunity to talk about how New Zealand plans to respond. References in the joint statement to a need for ‘increased participation in warfighting exercises’ and ‘enhancing joint deterrence efforts’ show a new willingness from Wellington to embrace the language of force.

Will there be investment to back up the tough talk?

All the parties in New Zealand’s coalition campaigned on a beefed-up defence budget, but the Luxon government has started the year demanding savings from across the public service of between 6.5% and 7.5%, including from defence and foreign affairs. Defence Minister Judith Collins and Peters will have had to explain to their Australian counterparts how they plan to square that circle over the next few budget cycles. Although, as ASPI’s analysis shows, Australia faces similar pressure to find money in a tight fiscal environment. These ministerial meetings offer both sets of ministers a pulpit from which to champion the need for increased defence spending in times of global uncertainty and security threats.

In this regard, ANZMIN provides an opportunity to reinforce the message that New Zealand wants to be a more active participant in collective security, in particular working more closely with traditional partners. As island nations, the logical focus is maritime security—importantly prioritising but not limited to the Pacific. In a press conference announcing that New Zealand would send a small group of defence personnel to the Red Sea where they will join Australian counterparts in support of strikes on Iranian-backed Houthi militants targeting international shipping, both Prime Minister Luxon and Collins talked about the importance of backing up words with action. Collins started her visit to Australia with a pledge that New Zealand wouldn’t ‘freeload’ when it came to international security. Australian ministers will doubtless have been interested to hear what plans for a more active and engaged New Zealand might look like, including deeper engagement with the Five Eyes, and AUKUS, as well as with ASEAN. Despite New Zealand’s smaller size, their Australian allies know the impact across the region of an active voice from Wellington in international affairs.

From an Australian perspective, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Minister Penny Wong can point to improved strategic coordination with New Zealand as further evidence of proactive statecraft, coupling Australia’s broad international partnerships with the use of all elements of its national power, including defence and diplomacy, as called for in the 2023 defence strategic review.

Showcasing this alliance sends a deterrence signal to authoritarian regimes attempting to use coercive practices to split Western allies and undermine sovereignty and rules. As Marles said, ‘As our region is being reshaped, Australia and New Zealand are committed to ensuring our alliance evolves in line with our strategic circumstances, is responsive and fit-for-purpose, and that we listen and work with our Pacific partners.’

From a defence perspective, this ministerial engagement opens space for deeper coordination between officials on procurement, with Collins referring to an ‘Anzac model’ where the capabilities of both defence forces should be complementary. Both sides should also compare notes over forthcoming strategic documents, notably the review processes underway in both countries about the future of surface fleets. Speculation about New Zealand’s potential contribution to specific advanced capabilities in AUKUS pillar two (which went unmentioned in the joint statement) should not distract from the opportunity for even wider cooperation on innovation and industry, for example in the space sector, leveraging our pooled labour markets and the trust rooted in the Five Eyes network. Reinvigorated trust in the significance of the Five Eyes as an institutional grouping was clear, with the statement expressly supporting a Five Eyes defence ministers’ meeting later this year.

The Pacific will continue to be a primary focus of each country’s foreign policy and the main operating environment for this alliance, even if there will always be differences in scale and tone in the region. But Canberra and Wellington have also sent a message that the alliance is not parochial and extends to the wider region and globe. The joint statement shows a commitment to the global rules-based system and the two countries’ shared interests in preserving peace, international law and the sovereignty of smaller powers, including a full-throated support for Ukraine (with six paragraphs on the conflict in the Middle East).

Although the Statement’s language was measured, references to the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and Taiwan are a clear sign that Beijing’s assertiveness was a significant topic of discussion.

Behind closed doors, regular top-level meetings like ANZMIN are an essential means for sweeping away bilateral grit and talking candidly about the threats posed by Beijing as well as the best approaches to a United States pulled in multiple directions globally and deeply polarised at home. Both New Zealand and Australia are bolstering security cooperation with the US. And both sides of the Tasman are already pondering the implications of the potential return of Donald Trump to the White House.

The Australia-New Zealand alliance rests on two nations who are, to misquote Chairman Mao, truly closer than lips and teeth. ANZMIN is a welcome and long-overdue step towards capitalising on this for strategic advantage. That will take some stiffening of the sinews not only between defence and foreign ministries, but between all the ministerial portfolios touching on national security on both sides of the Tasman. As recognised in the ANZMIN statement, it will also require expert dialogue beyond governments to raise public understanding and build capacity, which is an area where ASPI and CSS look forward to making a joint contribution.