Jim Rolfe is a former NZ Army officer, academic, author and international defence consultant. This is his analysis of the Government’s Defence Policy Statement.
The 2018 Strategic Policy Statement, released Friday, A White Paper in all but name, is a comprehensive, cogent and well integrated document. When combined with the updated Defence Capability Plan later in the year the New Zealand Defence Force will have a clear path that will, in the words of the Minister of Defence, Ron Mark, at the launch, set the shape of Defence for decades to come.
The Policy Statement was considered necessary by the government because they wanted to confirm that the policy settings described in the 2016 Defence White Paper were still relevant. They must be, given that there is at least an 85 percent overlap, perhaps more, in policy settings and policy determinants between the two documents.
Those who feared that the new government would be in any way soft on defence should be reassured, not only by document itself, but also by the Minister’s wide-ranging analysis of the issues facing Defence and his robust support for Defence and the people who work within it. For example, the Minister strongly emphasised the point that the NZDF has to be combat capable and ready for international tasks and recognised internationally as being such. These and other similarly strong points are embedded in a set of six principles underpinning defence policy.
As well, recognising the long-term nature of defence decisions, the Minister noted during the question and answer session that he had consulted widely and shared defence information across all parties in Parliament. It’s probably a step too far for such sharing to be codified into parliament practices, but it is a welcome approach in an area that has too often generated more heat than light in debate between government and opposition over the years.
Inevitably, the Minister played up the differences between this statement and the previous policy line. We now have a set of principles, mentioned above, against which defence decisions will be made and should be judged. The principles are themselves nothing exceptional, nor even particularly new other than to be codified in a single collection and branded, but they are completely sensible and it is another signal of the new transparency within the defence system.
Defence also will operate within a framework of ‘support for the community and environmental well-being’, ‘promotion of a safe, secure and resilient New Zealand’, and contributions to the ‘maintenance of the international rules-based order. Again, these have been implicit in Defence’s approach for many years. Now they are explicit. One hopes, however, that the order of the presentation and discussion of these operational outcomes does not reflect priorities for shaping defence capabilities.
Other areas touted in the Policy Statement as more or less new: challenges to the rules-based order; great power competition; the effects of climate change; the importance of space and cyber issues to security, are not. They have all been well signalled in previous White Papers, if not the last, then the one before that, and the one before that.
For those who look for signs and signals from placement, they need to look no further than the treatment of China in the document. In 2016 China was discussed in the international relationships section of the White Paper immediately after the traditional ‘Five-Eyes’ partners. The language was warm. In 2018, China has been relegated towards the end of the relationships section and the language is marginally more neutral. On the other hand, in other sections, China is recognised, for example, as being ‘deeply integrated into the rules based-order’. China is mentioned in the document about half as often again as the United States. All in all, perhaps, a draw.
Overall, the government deserves praise for this document and the approach to defence it describes. Of course, these policy declarations still have to be supported with money, which will reveal the actual policy. But the words are a very good start.
At the same time as the Policy Statement, the Minister released the report by Sir Brian Roche into a review of defence procurement practices. The report found that the ‘capability management system now provides decision makers with a strong level of confidence and assurance to support informed decision making’. Mr Mark in opposition was a trenchant critic of defence procurement. As Minister, he is ‘very pleased’ with the report, but noted that the system was still relatively new and that the government would be keeping a close eye on defence procurement practices.