In a major speech in Beijing Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee has not only underlined the importance of the relationship with China but also given some broad indications of future directions for defence policy.
Mr Brownlee is in Beijing for a week where he will call on General Fan Changlong, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission. He will also meet General Chang Wanquan, Minister of National Defence, before travelling to Chengdu, and the Chengdu Military District, where he will meet with commanders and visit a military base.
His visit follows on the June visit to Beijing of the Chief of Defence Force, Major General Tim Keating and comes at the same time as eight People’s Liberation Army troops are taking part alongside New Zealand troops in Operational Tropic Twilight in the Cook Islands.
Meanwhile preparation of New Zealand’s new Defence White Paper are well underway with the public consultations finished in June and the Paper expected to be published soon.
Therefore the Minister’s speech in Beijing to the National Defence University offers an interesting glimpse into current Defence thinking and the kind of ideas that will make their way into the White Paper.
This White Paper is important because Mr Brownlee has privately made it clear that he sees the need for some changes in emphasis in New Zealand Defence policy.
Mr Brownlee is full of praise for the growing bilateral relationship between the Chinese Defence forces and New Zealand.
“Our Five Year Engagement Plan with the People’s Liberation Army is the first agreed between China and a Western military, demonstrating the unique nature of our relationship,” he said.
“This builds on our tradition of ‘firsts’ in the political and economic relationship.
And he said the contingent of People’s Liberation Army engineers currently working alongside New Zealand troops in the Cook Island on Operation Tropic Twilight has the additional effect of getting our militaries used to working together.
“Creating opportunity for our junior soldiers to work together in real, practical situations is another priority for New Zealand,” he said.
“This will boost interoperability, mutual understanding and enable us to share perspectives on the world.
“The soldiers of today will be the generals of tomorrow.”
But there is another side to the Pacific that worries the Minister and which will presumably feature in the White Paper.
He said that New Zealand New Zealand maintained a direct interest in security and prosperity in the South Pacific.
“We do not expect that the South Pacific will face an external military threat,” he said.
“However, a breakdown in law and order or state failure resulting in instability or conflict would negatively impact New Zealand’s interests in the region.
“The rising political, security, and economic influence of non-state actors in the region is a cause for concern.
“South Pacific nations face continuing economic, environmental, and governance challenges; accompanied by relatively low security sector capacity.
“This fragility is likely to remain a key issue in the near and medium term.”
He said New Zealand saw real value in working together with partners such as China to help build capacity and resilience in South Pacific communities.
And he also singled out New Zealand’s concerns about its exclusive economic zone and the Antarctic.
This issue is sure to surface in the White Paper and may well have big implications for future equipment purchases for the Air Force and Navy.
Mr Brownlee said that The New Zealand Defence Force covered a search and rescue zone that stretched from north of the Equator, all the way to the South Pole, halfway to Australia, and halfway to South America.
“This equates to 11 per cent of the planet,” he said.
“99 per cent of New Zealand’s goods trade is by sea, linked to markets far from our shores.
“We place great importance on both freedom of navigation and maintaining open trading routes.
“These are not just rhetorical statements.
“They are real and critical for New Zealand.”
As well he said there was rising economic interest in in the Southern Oceans and in Antarctica.
“We are already seeing increased illegal activity by poachers, and there is potential for rising strategic competition between states,” he said.
Those comments suggest that the Government could well be looking for an additional naval vessel capable of operating in the Southern Ocean.
Mr Brownlee also addressed the issue of China’s island construction programme in the South China Sea.
His comments were largely a repeat of the comments he made in June at the Shangrila Defence Dialogue in Singapore — in which he suggested that it was the mark of great nation that they took into account the concerns of small nations – a clear hint that China should listen to countries like The Philippines and Vietnam who have protested about its activities in the South China Sea.
Mr Brownlee’s speech is another indication of how close the day to day working relationship between New Zealand China is becoming.
He is the third Minister to visit China within the past fortnight.
Last week Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce and Revenue Minister Todd McClay were there.