A New Zealand wolf in sheep’s clothing
16 Jun 2016|

It’s funny how the same document can be perceived so differently. In his demolition job on New Zealand’s latest Defence White Paper, Peter Jennings sees Wellington plumbing ‘new depths of vacuity’ in its ‘desperation to say nothing offensive to outsiders’. This includes, he asserts, a reluctance ‘to say that Chinese assertiveness is undermining security’ in the South China Sea.

But those aware of Wellington’s increasing willingness to comment on South China Sea matters will see in the White Paper a formalization of positions that have already complicated the Key government’s relationship with Beijing. Those positions include a statement designed specifically for China regarding the international tribunal case launched by the Philippines:

‘New Zealand supports the rights of states to seek recourse to international dispute settlement…It is important that all states respect the final outcomes of such processes.’

Nobody in their right mind would expect New Zealand to have matched the Australian White Paper’s depiction of China as a serial challenger to international rules in Asia (which I explore elsewhere). And Wellington’s treatment of China as an ‘important strategic partner’ has a higher profile in its White Paper.

But Beijing, Washington and Canberra will have noticed New Zealand’s enthusiastic reference to Japan as a country ‘with common democratic values and a shared commitment to maintaining regional peace and security’ and the endorsement of ‘Japan’s recent moves to make a more proactive contribution to international security’.

Similarly, while Peter detects ‘no expression of Wellington’s willingness to exercise freedom of navigation or overflight rights’ in the South China Sea, a careful reader will spot the White Paper’s assertion that New Zealand’s Defence Force ‘makes an important contribution to international efforts towards freedom of navigation’ including ‘maritime surveillance in the South Pacific and South East Asia’. Match that with recent comments by Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee about the role of New Zealand’s P3 Orions and Wellington isn’t keeping as quiet on those matters as Peter wants to make us think.

I also wonder if Peter has misread New Zealand’s strengthened focus on Antarctica and the southern oceans ‘as a useful secondary task, but nothing more than that.’ The reader of a very thoughtful piece by David Capie might conclude that Antarctica + New Zealand’s vast EEZ + the South Pacific could be just the combination to cement cross-partisan political support for significant defence investment. After all, the report from the public submission process reveals particular concern ‘about New Zealand’s ability to protect and monitor its vast Exclusive Economic Zone, and other strategic areas of interest like the Ross Dependency.’

That takes us to capabilities. Peter is on firmer ground in asking for more specifics on what NZ$20 billion of capital investment will purchase New Zealand. Like him, I’m very keen to see what the forthcoming Defence Capability Plan says (and what it doesn’t say). But the big point is that this money buys New Zealand planners some flexibility. It was big news at the end of 2013, as I explained over two years ago in these pages, when the Key government injected extra money into defence as part of its Mid-Term Review. This capital commitment is even bigger news still.

What the promise of extra cash doesn’t buy New Zealand is extra time. The White Paper notes that the Ministry of Defence has been expanded to ‘deliver’ on the replacements for the Hercules, the Orions and the frigates. And as I have argued in a New Zealand newspaper, by the time the next White Paper is out in five or six years time, the decision points on at least one of these major capabilities will have passed.

But even here things aren’t as bleak as Peter’s cherry-picked quotations suggest. As for airlift, the most urgent priority, the Key government is giving the impression it wants to look at options with greater capacity and range than the present combination of the C130s and 757s allows. On surveillance, the White Paper does more than Peter claims. Comments on the current upgrading of the Orions, including for ‘underwater surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence’, (the first of these words, especially telling), are clearly intended by the White Paper’s drafters as a sign of further things to come.

That leaves the frigates as the third and last of the major replacements. There is a certain vagueness in the statement that ‘Work on options for the replacement of the frigates will begin well before they reach the end of their service life in the 2020s’. To what extent that might mean New Zealand’s involvement in Australia’s future frigates will depend partly on whether the latter are of a size and expense that works for Wellington.

But having such a capability in general terms is not optional for the Key Government. The White Paper establishes as a requirement for the defence force ‘naval combat and air-surveillance capabilities to secure sea lines of communication, conduct counter-piracy and sea control operations within a coalition’. And it connects these capabilities to New Zealand’s requirement to meet its ‘commitment to Australia’ and ‘make a credible contribution in support of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region’.

How future New Zealand governments reconcile this wider ambition well beyond the South Pacific with a clearer local focus remains to be seen. That tension will deserve continuing attention. But the big news for Australia is that its neighbour across the Tasman is more ambitious about its defence force than it has been for several decades. There’s a wolf in that sheep’s clothing.