The Ministry of Defence’s first formal “Defence Assessment” for seven years was made public yesterday, and it represents a dramatic turn away from the global outlook of previous Assessments.

Instead, it says New Zealand’s defence policy and strategy should promote and protect New Zealand’s interests in its immediate region, specifically the Pacific.

It says New Zealand faces a substantially more challenging and complex strategic environment than it has for decades.

“New Zealand faces a world in which strategic competition is increasingly the background for states’ relationships,” it says.

“China’s rise is the major driver for this competition.

“Globally, strategic competition is most visible between China and the United States, but all other states are involved to varying degrees.”

.And it warns that this growing strategic competition will increase the potential for conflict

“Even absent open conflict,   strategic competition will play out across a range of theatres (including in space and cyber-space) in ways that will threaten New Zealand’s security: this is true of both the wider Indo-Pacific and New Zealand’s immediate region,” the Assessment says.

The Assessment says China’s external objectives have expanded over time, as has the expression of China’s “core interests”.

“This has been accompanied by an increasingly strong nationalist narrative,” it says.

Advertisment

“Ultimately, Beijing is seeking to reshape the international system to make it more compatible with China’s governance model and national values, and with China recognised as a global leader.”

The 2014 Assessment focused on conflicts in the Middle East (Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan) and saw only a relatively benign outlook in the Pacific where it said though there was no direct military threat, transnational organised crime was s an increasing challenge, as was illegal fishing.

And the Assessment saw little cause for concern in North Asia. However, it noted that China was a rapidly increasing power, and there were some tensions in the region but said there were grounds for cautious optimism.

But when that Assessment was prepared in 2013, China’s President Xi Jinping had been in office for less than a year.

Since then, he has driven an increased focus on nationalism within China and a more assertive approach to foreign affairs as well as military threats against Taiwan and a growing military and naval presence on the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

In its annual Asia Power survey, published this week, the Lowy Institute says China over the past year has also made good use of its increasing military strength, backed by defence spending now 50 per cent larger than the combined outlays of India, Japan, Taiwan and all ten ASEAN countries.

“Beijing has deployed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to intimidate Taiwan, jostle with India along its disputed Himalayan border, press its sovereignty claims against Japan in the East China Sea, and exert extra-legal control over international waters and airspace in the South China Sea,” it says.

“As Beijing downsizes and professionalises the PLA’s armed forces, it has expanded the country’s nuclear deterrent and developed advanced weapons that can threaten US and allied bases in the region, as well as the US mainland.”

But yesterday, Henare was optimistic that any conflict involving China could be avoided.

“As a country, what we are hoping to do is make sure that diplomacy reigns,” he said.

“We need to make sure that we can enter into positive dialogue to de-escalate any of the serious threats that might come about.

“But of course, I won’t pre-empt any such action.

“Right now, we are focused as a country on making sure that we can de-escalate any kind of friction between China and Taiwan.”

But it is the Pacific where Henare believes New Zealand should put its main defence focus.

We are in and of the Pacific,” he said.

“And for us to be a responsible player in the Pacific, we need to be quite clear and deliberate about our approach there.

“As we look towards the Indo-Pacific, New Zealand will continue to play its role.

“If we are strong, responsible citizens in the Pacific supporting our Pacific neighbours, I anticipate this will continue to secure the Pacific.”

The Assessment lists the threats that New Zealand might face in the Pacific:

  • The establishment of a military base or dual-use facility in the Pacific by a state that does not share New Zealand’s values and security interests:
  • Extra-regional military-backed resource exploitation: Military and paramilitary supported resource exploitation (of both fisheries and undersea oil and gas) has increasingly become a feature of activities in the South China Sea.
  • Military confrontation: Increasing strategic competition will likely lead to greater chances for military confrontation, by both accident and design, and particularly at sea.
  • Contested responses to security events: Greater competition for regional influence will increase the potential that a range of states will seek to respond to events, such as natural disasters or internal instability affecting Pacific countries, in ways that are at least incoherent and could be actively contested.

The upshot of this analysis is that the Assessment argues that New Zealand needs to change its defence stance in the Pacific from a reactive one to a pro-active one.

“The principal change we recommend is for New Zealand’s defence policy to shift from a risk management-centred approach to one based on a deliberate and proactive strategy, with more explicit – and explicitly prioritised – policy objectives,” it says.

“A more strategy-led approach would better enable Defence – as part of broader national efforts – to pre-empt and prevent, as well as respond to, security threats, and better build resilience against the incremental impacts of climate change and other security challenges.”

But it warns that this approach would a more rigorous prioritisation of effort and some hard choices and payoffs.

And the Defence Secretary, Andrew Bridgman, said the approach would still mean New Zealand was available to participate in multi-national forces in places like Iraq and Afghanistan or United Nations peacekeeping efforts.

“What we are saying is that the focus needs to be on the Pacific because that is our closest area from a security lens and from a constitutional obligation lens, from a moral obligation lens,” he said.

“But that there and that’s where we can make the biggest material impact as a defence and security system.

“But it should not and will not preclude us from being committed to other areas throughout the world where governments decide that we should go to contribute as a good international citizen.”

The other question that a prime focus on the pacific will raise is whether the current defence Capability Plan, which sets out defence equipment purchases over 20 years is still relevant.

Henare said that the critical elements needed in the Pacific, new P8  maritime patrol aircraft and replacement C130 Hercules transport aircraft, had already been committed to.

The Government is currently also evaluating tenders for new naval helicopters.

The 2019 Defence Capability Plan proposed that in the mid-2020s, a second sealift vessel be procured to join HMNZS Canterbury in the Pacific, doing everything from transporting troops to delivering supplies and disaster relief to providing a platform for helicopter operations.

The Plan also proposed a Southern Ocean patrol vessel.

But during the hearing of Defence Estimates in August at the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, Bridgman suggested the purchases might be moved out “a bit.”

Asked yesterday about the capability required by a prioritisation of the Pacific, Henare simply talked up the current P8 and C130 purchases.

The document also questions the security architecture in the Pacific region and whether it would be sufficient to manage future security challenges.

Along with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade–led Pacific reset, the Defence Assessment now presents the Government with a formal analysis and strategy to guide its overall policies in the Pacific.

That is a first.