Prime Minister Christopher Luxon; Foreign Minister, Winston Peters; Defence Minister, Judith Collins announcing the Red Sea deployment yesterday

The decision announced yesterday to agree to a United States invitation to deploy New Zealand forces to the Red Sea to help counter the Houthis attacks on shipping was probably inevitable.

And it will raise questions about whether the new government has started to move away from our independent foreign policy to a closer alignment with the United States.

On January 3, New Zealand was one of 14 countries which signed a statement from the White House promising that the signatories were “determined to hold malign actors accountable for unlawful seizures and attacks” on ships in the Red Sea.

Eight days later, there was a second statement announcing that the United States and the United Kingdom had led a series of strikes against Houthi targets.

Japan issued its own separate statement condemning the attacks, but Singapore issued a statement emphasising that it had not taken part in the attacks.

Instead, it was contributing personnel to Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG), an effort under the ambit of the multinational Combined Maritime Forces’ Combined Task Force.

“Involving over 20 countries, OPG focuses on efforts to protect shipping vessels against security threats, such as through information sharing and maritime patrols,” the Singapore statement said.

It is thus clear that New Zealand had a choice: either to join the OPG in its protective role or to accept the U.S. invitation for a more aggressive role supporting the U.S. and U.K. strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, at his first post-Cabinet press conference for the year yesterday, suggested that the new deployment was similar to other New Zealand deployments to the Gulf, which had been to protect shipping along the lines of the OPG.

“Choosing to support action in the Middle East is not unusual for New Zealand,” he said.

Advertisment

“New Zealand has contributed to maritime security efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere continuously since 2013 to protect not only our vital national interests but also the international rules-based order.”

Currently, there are 12 N.Z. Defence personnel deployed to the Combined Maritime Forces Headquarters in Bahrain. This mission covers shipping lanes from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, the Indian Ocean, and the Gulf of Oman.

So yesterday’s announcement amounts to an escalation of New Zealand’s military role in the Gulf, which has drawn us closer to our Five Eyes partners, the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, who are all part of the US-led strikes on the Houthi bases in Yemen.

But Luxon said to describe the operation as a Five Eyes operation was “incorrect”.

“There were up to 44 countries that were condemning the actions of Houthi,” he said.

“There have been a number of subsequent statements that have been made by different coalitions of countries.

“What we are doing here is doing something that we’re building on, a long-standing commitment we’ve had since 2013 to ensure that there is peaceful security in those shipping lanes in the Middle East.”

The Greens (predictably) didn’t accept that explanation, saying the deployment was dangerous and naive.

Labour’s Foreign Affairs spokesman David Parker said there was no U.N. mandate for the strikes, and a number of like-minded countries, particularly in Europe, have steered clear of joining the US-led campaign.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters told the press conference that he had broken with tradition and not briefed the Opposition on an overseas Defence Force commitment.

“We didn’t consult the others in that context because it was a position that they had already evinced themselves some time back on these matters and some of the statements they have made,” he said.

“It being a limited engagement and over the last 30 years of 21 engagements such as this on a larger or smaller scale, we did not think it was required for us to do that. “

But shortly after, Peters said that a Beehive source confirmed that the Office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs had briefed the Leader of the Opposition and the Opposition Foreign Affairs Spokesperson before the public announcement.

The Other big question left hanging after yesterday’s press conference was what precisely the New Zealand personnel would do.

Defence Minister Judith Collins was circumspect about that.

“Our personnel will support coalition forces carrying out precision attacks on identified military targets,” she said.

“They will be at operational headquarters in the wider Middle East region and elsewhere, but they will not go into Yemen.

“The New Zealand Defense Force team will hold a number of roles at operational headquarters.

“But as I’m sure you all know, we cannot go into the specifics for security reasons.

“But what I can say is that New Zealand Defense Force personnel are immensely skilled.”

Collins would not say which branch of the Defence Force the personnel would come from.

Whilst the left will oppose the deployment, which is probably not surprising,  the deployment will add to a growing international perception that New Zealand’s foreign policy has changed with the change in government.

In an Op-Ed in the influential Nikkei Asia Review a week ago, Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at the think tank Rand Corp. in Santa Monica and former intelligence adviser at the Pentagon, argued that Peters seemed  intent on trading in the country’s independent foreign policy “for aligning New Zealand with the U.S. in the global great-power competition against China.”

“The early indications, however, point to a New Zealand planning to deepen alignment with like-minded partners, not just to address China, but probably in regard to other challenges as well,” Grossman wrote.

“Wellington, for example, signed onto a declaration from Washington earlier this month about forming a multinational coalition to deal with Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.

“This prompted former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark to wonder aloud whether Kiwi policy is now simply to follow the U.S.

“While the future is unclear, Beijing cannot be pleased to see a country that had been one of its closest Western friends drift further away.”