Former Prime Minister Helen Clark is suggesting that Defence Minister Andrew Little has been railroaded by hawkish officials in either or both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Ministry of Defence into a notably more pro-American stance in the defence review released on Friday.
In a series of tweets, Clark said: “Defence policy & security strategy documents released in Wellington today suggest that NZ is abandoning its capacity to think for itself & instead is cutting & pasting from 5 Eyes’ partners. The drumbeat from officials has been consistent on this for some time.”
Interestingly, National’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee, whilst not as critical as Clark, has his own concerns about the hawkish nature of the Defence Policy and Strategy Statement.
Clark declined to elaborate to POLITIK on her tweets yesterday, but they are fairly explicit in that they would seem to point the finger at MFAT for the pressure over AUKUS.
“This is reminiscent of the Frank Corner-led Defence Committee of Inquiry of 1985 set up by David Lange, which in effect – & in the end unsuccessfully- tried to put brakes on the Govt’s nuclear-free & independent foreign policy,” one tweet said.
Corner had been Secretary of Foreign Affairs and was highly critical of the decision to ban US nuclear-powered and armed warships arguing that it was better to be in the ANZUS Council than outside it.
Gerald Hensley, a former diplomat, Head of the Prime Minister’s Office when David Lange was Prime Minister and then Secretary of Defence, is an admirer of Corner and would seem to vindicate Clark’s argument with a critique of the “independent foreign policy” he recently published on Stuff.
“What is emerging is a platform of collective security in the face of the (East Asian) region’s widespread fear of China,” he wrote.
“As this takes shape, New Zealand will have to do more than say that its anti-nuclear stance is not wishful thinking. We need to recognise we have got on the wrong track.
“We need to recover the old boundaries of a realistic foreign policy, repair the mildewed relationship with Australia, pay much more attention to the ASEAN countries and stop regarding the South China Sea and Taiwan as faraway problems.
“The obsession with independence and nuclear disarmament is the sound of people in the dark, whistling to keep up their spirits.”
The Defence Policy and Strategy Statement released on Friday, which Clark was tweeting about, would seem to echo Hensley with its view that the wider Indo-Pacific is now the central global theatre for strategic competition.
“The Chinese Government’s assertive pursuit of its strategic objectives is the major driver for the new era of strategic competition among states,” the statement says.
“An increasingly powerful China is using all its instruments of national power in ways that can pose challenges to existing international rules and norms.
“Beijing continues to invest heavily in growing and modernising its military and is increasingly able to project military and paramilitary force beyond its immediate region, including across the wider Indo-Pacific.”
While National’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee, has been careful not to endorse Clark’s statements, he argues that we need to balance our relationship with China.
“No one walks around with their eyes closed,” he told POLITIK.
“And the key thing for any government in New Zealand is the protection of the values that we have as a society; freedom, democracy, the ability to interact internationally as well as you possibly can.
“Those are the things that we’ve got to look to preserve and protect and promote.
“But at the same time, we know that we are trading with countries that have different sets of values.
“We don’t have to turn them into the absolute the enemy, in my opinion.”
Brownlee argues that New Zealand should be doing more positive things in the Pacific and working with partners to get more aid into the region to counter the so-called debt diplomacy practised by China.
He also believes New Zealand should be offering Pacific Islanders more educational opportunities.
POLITIK has spoken to a former National and a former Labour Minister in recent weeks, who were both critical of what they saw as a growing tendency within MFAT and the Ministry of Defence to adopt a more hawkish analysis of China.
The Chinese themselves seem perplexed by the change in tone in Wellington.
There has been no official comment so far from either the Embassy or China’s Foreign Ministry on the statement released on Friday.
However, the usually strident party-owned “Global Times” has reacted.
“Chinese experts are urging Wellington to keep a clear head and make judicious decisions when handling its relations with China,” it said in a commentary on the statement.
“The currently positive relationship between the two countries should not be risked for the sake of the US anti-China strategy.
“New Zealand is advised to remain vigilant for some hawkish politicians pushing for a tougher China stance, in particular against the backdrop of impending national parliamentary elections in October.”
POLITIK understands that the Beehive believes some caution is needed to not jump the gun; that not only has no decision been made about whether New Zealand might join Pillar Two of the Australian nuclear submarine programme, AUKUS, but no papers have been produced evaluating that proposition.
However, there is also caution about Helen Clark’s views with a suggestion that the strategic environment has changed since 2001 when she spoke at the UN Asia Pacific Regional Disarmament Conference in Wellington and famously declared that New Zealand lived in the middle of one of the most strategically secure environments in the world.
“We would like other nations to experience the peace of a benign strategic environment, too,” she said.
Nevertheless, it is surely surprising that a Labour Government defence strategy should be questioned by National for being too hardline and openly criticised for abandoning the independent foreign policy by the Labour Party’s longest-serving leader.