New Zealand will undoubtedly irritate its United States and Australian defence partners with a new defence strategy for the Pacific to be released today.
The strategy identifies climate change — not China — as the major threat facing the region.
This contrasts with a growing view among American analysts that the Pacific is becoming a growing area for strategic competition between the United States and China.
When China’s President Xi Jinping held a meeting with Pacific leaders in Port Moresby ahead of APEC a year ago, that seemed to reinforce that argument.
But Defence Minister Ron Mark has been arguing for some time that on the ground in the Pacific it is climate change that most threatens the stability of the region.
The report, Advancing Pacific Partnerships, says that the impacts of climate change are being felt acutely in the Pacific as well as in New Zealand
“This will necessitate more Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief operations and potentially stability operations in our region,” it says.
“Local communities and response agencies alike should prepare for larger-scale disasters, shorter recovery periods between disasters, and the possibility of communities’ reduced resilience.
“Maritime domain awareness will be increasingly important in helping to assess how climate change is intersecting with other regional security trends, including the movement of fish stocks and the fleets that pursue them around the region and into New Zealand’s expansive maritime search and rescue zone.”
But the report sees New Zealand Defence having to play a more traditional security role in the region.
“More will be expected of New Zealand Defence on all of these challenges.
“Countering these disrupters is significant for the maintenance of regional security, especially as their compounding nature may exacerbate state fragility and present challenges to governance.
“Greater competition for influence in the Pacific will intersect with this suite of complex disruptors.
“ External actors seeking to enhance their regional presence may leverage these issues as vectors of influence.
“More broadly, the pace, intensity, and scope of engagement by external actors, who may not always reflect our values across their activities, are at the heart of a growing sense of geostrategic competition that is animating many nations’ renewed focus on the Pacific.”
The document does not name countries though one section would appear to apply to both the United States and China.
“We work with a range of partners in the Pacific and will continue to do so on those terms,” it says.
“In all cases, we will convey clear and consistent messages about expectations for constructive behaviour consistent with the international rules-based order in the Pacific.
“In line with New Zealand’s independent foreign policy, New Zealand Defence’s operations and activities in the Pacific will reflect the interests of New Zealand and our Pacific partners.”
Previously, in the Defence Policy Statement of 2018, Defence drew criticism from China after it was singled out for its actions in the South China Sea and the region more generally.
The reference was said to be one of the factors behind the cooling of relations between Beijing and Wellington earlier this year, which was resolved with the Prime Minister’s visit to Beijing in April.
So this time around, Defence appears to have been much more diplomatic.
But the document does have practical implications.
It refers to the 2019 defence Capability Plan. It says a second, enhanced sealift vessel, to be acquired in the late-2020s, will operate alongside HMNZS Canterbury, more than doubling capacity and increasing effectiveness.
“With greater lift capacity, it will be able to transfer people and equipment ashore in a wider range of weather and sea conditions, significantly increasing our ability to respond to humanitarian and security events.
“The enhanced sealift capability will improve the New Zealand Defence Force’s amphibious operations and will provide support for the deployment of a range of capabilities, including Special Forces, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems and helicopters. “
The report points t the importance of the C 130 Hercules replacements — a decision that Mark was able to shepherd through the coalition and Cabinet by emphasizing their importance to the Pacific and in particular, in relation to climate change-induced events.
“The Plan’s addition of a dedicated Southern Ocean Patrol Vessel in the mid-2020s will allow the
Otago Class offshore patrol vessels and their eventual replacements to focus on the South Pacific and the changing requirements of New Zealand’s expansive maritime domain.”
The other big procurement decision that Mark has won is the decision to purchase four Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. These have obvious relevance to the Pacific.
“In addition, the Government is also considering options, such as smaller crewed aircraft, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems and satellites, for an air surveillance capability.”
The director of Victoria University of Wellington’s Centre for Strategic Studies, Dr David Capie, says the report aligns with the priorities set out by South Pacific Forum Leaders in the Boe Declaration about regional security last year.
“If you’re going to talk about a talk about being a serious partner with the Pacific, aligning your priorities with their priorities makes a lot of sense,” he told POLITIK. Capie said he did not think that the New Zealand statement was ever going to be about calling out the Chinese in the Pacific.
“The other thing that’s really interesting about it is how much they go out of their way to really emphasise the cultural connection; to say we’re actually in the region.
“We’re a partner in a deep meaning because we’re actually part of the Pacific like you.”
Capie’s comments underline how much this document is a product of the region, making its priorities New Zealand’s priorities which has ended meaning that the great power strategic rivalries in the region have been put behind the regional priorities.