It’s hard to get folks excited about the Australian–New Zealand defence relationship. It’s uncontroversial because we’re already close partners in a fairly low octane South Pacific neighbourhood, where we’re expected to work together. And it’s often overshadowed by links with bigger and more distant players. Chief among these is Australia’s long-standing and very close relationship with the United States. Stephen Smith and Jonathan Coleman may have met in the same city (Perth) and the same month (November) for their annual Australian–New Zealand Defence Ministerial consultations as the biennial AUSMIN talks which had earlier involved Smith, Leon Panetta, Bob Carr and Hillary Clinton. But you would have to be from Mars to expect the media interest to be anywhere near equal.
If I was an Australian defence planner—a tough job in today’s austere times—I’d still be looking to the US relationship to have a larger impact on the future shape of the ADF. But for defence policymakers here in New Zealand, the same formula doesn’t apply. That’s not to deny that our defence relationship with the United States has come on in leaps and bounds over the last couple of years. There are even hints on an informal ANZUS triangle coming onto the scene—the Smith/Coleman communiqué indicated that New Zealand forces will observe the 2013 US–Australian Talisman Sabre exercise ‘with the aim of full participation from 2015 onwards.’
But it would take a minor revolution for New Zealand’s burgeoning relationship with the US to steal first place in Wellington’s calculations from defence links with Australia. And because the Australia–NZ relationship matters a whole lot on one side of the Tasman and rather less on the other (militarily, as well as economically and politically), New Zealand has work to do to stay on Canberra’s radar screen. That could get harder as Australia pays more attention to its links with significant Asian powers, including Indonesia, and possibly Japan and India, as the region’s geopolitical shifts become more evident. And as Australia looks more to its north and west, and especially out to the Indian Ocean, it might not see much of New Zealand.
New Zealand might want several things from the defence relationship with Australia. The first is consistency: working with an ADF which has a clear and sensible but modest trajectory is far preferable to the highs and lows which can come if Australia is zigzagging between defence ambition and despair. This means that Canberra needs to take a reality check. The growing gap between Australia’s defence ambitions and defence resources can only be reconciled by an unlikely injection of cash or a smaller view of what Australia can achieve. The latter would suit New Zealand because in the South Pacific we are more likely to work together in modest sized teams and with lighter maritime capabilities: logistics and patrol ships rather than submarines and air-warfare destroyers. An Australia, by comparison, that gets too carried away with what it can offer for the Indo-Pacific moment, only to find its gaze has exceeded its abilities, might be a less settled partner.
The second is for Canberra to give more emphasis to the self-reliance of the ADF, and less to its potential roles in maritime coalitions in more challenging circumstances well into the northern Asia–Pacific. The ADF being able to deploy independently, including in its immediate environs, will work for New Zealand. It will generate capabilities that we can hitch a ride on, and it will require future Australian governments to think more about the wider security context in which defence forces operate.
The third is for Australia to take advantage of the things that New Zealand offers while being realistic about what Wellington can provide. Gone are the days when people envisioned a fully combined and integrated ANZAC defence force—that’s simply not going to happen. But the cross-crewing of Australian and New Zealand naval vessels, and the availability of New Zealand’s multi-role vessel for trans-Tasman purposes when Australian’s platforms are out of service, are signs of what the start of an Australasian capability can look like.
The fourth is for Canberra to be aware of the backwash that its positioning on the US–China balance in Asia can bring to its smaller neighbor. Resisting the temptation to get too carried away with the US rebalancing (something that Ministers in New Zealand should resist as well) will allow more free space for the trans-Tasman relationship to flourish. If Australia wants to take a less accommodating view of China than we do in New Zealand, that’s certainly its prerogative. But Canberra shouldn’t expect Wellington to take the same approach. We’re close partners, but we’re not joined at the hip.
That difference works the other way too. We like having an Australia that is big enough to look after its own security because that works for our security too. But we want our bigger neighbour to have an inbuilt habit to consult with smaller partners as well as larger ones. We don’t expect ANZAC consultations to rival AUSMIN, and we wouldn’t want the focused nature of trans-Tasman consultations to be swallowed up in a return to trilateral formalism. That would be a backward step. It would be better for some niggles to remain in Canberra that New Zealand has been welcomed back by the United States without having to do the hard yards than for New Zealand to disappear off Australia’s screen. Above all, we want to be noticed.
Robert Ayson is director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.