New Zealand military personnel have begun training with their Chinese counterparts — part of a growing relationship between the huge People’s Liberation Army and the New Zealand Defence Force.

The latest contingent —  officer trainees —  is expected to leave soon to leave for training with the Poeple’s Libveration Army in China.

The training is testament to the growing closeness of the New Zealand and Chinese defence forces.

The NZ-China relationship stands in stark contrast to the wariness of China displayed by countries like the US, Australia and Japan who are all involved in a massive naval exercise this week in the South China Sea designed as a show of force to warn China off asserting territorial rights to what the US regards as open seas.

The nature of the New Zealand – China relationship was underlined earlier this month when Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee visited China and met with Defence Ministry and PLA leaders.

And while he was there he surprised defence commentators here by describing China as A “true strategic partner.”

Two Victoria University Centre for Strategic Studies defence experts, Robert Ayson and David Capie say that this is the first time they can recall seeing a Cabinet Minister comparing New Zealand’s defence relations with China and the United States.

But Mr Brownlee is quick to say that he didn’t go so far as so say China was an unshakable ally — as is the United States or Australia.

“But there is a growing relationship between our two countries which we should recognise and respect,” he told POLITIK.

He says the vast difference in scale between the two countries has to be remembered.


“We’ve got 14,000 in total in our combined military, uniformed and civilian.

“They have in uniform, 2.3 million.”

But there is a growing amount of connection between New Zealand and China.

Some PLA troops took part in a recent exercise with NZ forces in the northern Cook Islands and soon around 24 members of an officers’ training course will spend a number of weeks in China.

Mr Brownlee said it was important that they were able to make the kind of people to people connections “that tend to work so well” in China.

“None of that means that we are any the less engaged with our five eyes partners (the UK, USA, Canada and Australia) and committed to those strong relationships.”

One of the other revelations from Mr Brownlee’s speech in Beijing to the National Defence University was that the New Zealand Defence Force and the PLA China had entered into a Five Year Engagement Plan which was cited as the first with a Western military and likened to the ‘four firsts’ New Zealand has achieved with China in the political and economic arena. 

“They do a lot of first with New Zealand,” said Mr Brownlee.

“I think it lets them get insight into the way the western world works.

“The engagement plan is about visits back and forth and so on.”

If there is a focus to the whole relationship it is above all the South Pacific.

New Zealand would not want to see the US and China challenge each other for influence in the region by way of a sort of soft power arms race.

By maintaining close contacts with both Washington and Beijing, New Zealand is better positioned to try and influence what the big powers are doing in the Pacific.

Mr Brownlee has found that senior US defence officials and military officers are deeply suspicious of China but he does not necessarily share that suspicion.

He believes that the China-US rivalry will be  the dominant foreign policy issue in the East Asian region for possibly the next forty years as China’s economy comes up to the size of the US.

“How that develops is dependent on all these little, small relationships really.”

New Zealand has become heavily economically dependent on China and that is never far from the minds of either Minister of Foreign Affairs or Defence so In effect Mr Brownlee is trying to turn New Zealand’s relative isolation and its small size into a lever to use to try and preserve the peace of the region so that our economy is not disrupted.

And whilst he is adamant that nothing he is doing undermines our relationship with the US, it may be that over the 30 years since the breakup of ANZUS, New Zealand has become a little more sceptical about the US view of the world, particularly as far as China goes.

But Mr Brownlee’s visit, and his landmark speech, point to New Zealand adopting a more independent view of its region and the US – China rivalry which is itself a significant turning point in our own foreign and defence policies.