New Zealand is on the verge of releasing another Defence White Paper. This will be the fourth time since the end of the Cold War that the South Pacific nation has undertaken a stocktake of its defence policy. What is contained in the white paper is yet unknown, but predictions are that it will follow through on the last white paper undertaken back in 2010, focus on getting more value for money out of its defence spend, improve regional defence partnerships, seek a modest equipment recapitalisation and a look ahead with a greater maritime focus, particularly in the Southern Ocean and South Pacific, which it deems as its primary area of interest. Nevertheless, in this first of two articles on the 2016 Defence White Paper (DWP) I am going to focus on the contextual background of New Zealand defence policy over the last couple of decades and why the 2016 DWP has probably the most significance of any of the previous white papers produced since the end of the cold war.
The 1991 DWP maintained a Cold War force structure, though knowing that that period was thankfully over and with a strict neo-liberalist Treasury dominating public policy, saw the defence budget slashed and capabilities reduced. The next DWP in 1997, sought to maintain a modest combat capability across all three service arms, retain and re-enforce the country’s defence relationship with Australia, whilst recognising the importance of the Asia Pacific region as a significant strategic dimension in the country’s future. It was a noble sentiment, yet without any realistic funding to follow this through. It was a moot point anyway, even if money may have been found eventually to do this, as the government of the day was out of office within 18 months and the 1997 DWP was scrapped.
“The New Zealand 2016 DWP is thus long awaited by those who have an interest in such matters in the political and policy sense, not just in New Zealand, but in Canberra as well as other regional Capital cities, to see if there has been a transformative change within New Zealand’s defence policy and strategic outlook. “
During the nine years of the center-left Labour Government between 1999-2008, no Defence White Paper was conducted. This was primarily a political choice made to keep matters of defence all centralised within close distance and influence of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. The 2016 Defence White Paper is the second to be undertaken by the current John Key-led National-led coalition. The Key administration’s first attempt at a white paper was started seven years ago and released during 2010. It was undramatic, often vague, and lacked any real strategic substance when compared to the more comprehensive defence white papers produced by neighbouring Australia. Often dissected and debated, compared and contrasted, within New Zealand, Australian white papers have always been more developed, more strategically nuanced and substantially more detailed. The New Zealand 2016 DWP is thus long awaited by those who have an interest in such matters in the political and policy sense, not just in New Zealand, but in Canberra as well as other regional Capital cities, to see if there has been a transformative change within New Zealand’s defence policy and strategic outlook.
Any lack of real interest in the 2016 DWP is most likely to come from the New Zealand public themselves. Defence, curiously, plays a far less role within the consciousness of the national life, than for example Australia. Many will not even notice that this significant aspect of governmental public policy is being released or would even care. To a certain extent that lack of genuine public interest in defence is caused by the failure to proactively articulate its role and purpose in a modern contemporary context. This inability to communicate its rationale has always been one of the weaknesses within New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) and to a certain extent its political undoing.
“Defence also involves the ability of a nation to enable, assist and influence it’s foreign policy and trade agenda, as well as increasingly providing for the protection of its environment and natural resources. Furthermore, what is usually never recognised nor widely understood, defence plays by protecting and securing all these things, a deeply significant role in securing a nations economic integrity.”
The public of New Zealand has little idea of the roles of the NZDF, or even why it exists beyond some superficial and outdated ideas. Far too frequently on social media, talk-back radio, letters to newspaper editors, when defence does occasionally enter into public discussion, there are the constant refrains that all they do is, “kill innocent woman and children on behalf of America”, or “fighting ‘other’ people’s wars” or indeed “buying expensive toys for boys to ride, fly and sail around in.” Ill-informed commentary aside, the defence of a nation, any nation is important. Defence is one of the cornerstone protections of a nation and its citizens, whether that be its sense of values such as liberty or freedom, or its territorial sovereignty. Defence also involves the ability of a nation to enable, assist and influence its foreign policy and trade agenda, as well as increasingly providing for the protection of its environment and natural resources. Furthermore, defence protects and secures all of these things, by playing a deeply significant role in securing a nations economic integrity, which is usually never recognised nor widely understood.
Australia, which has long had a formal defence relationship with New Zealand has in the last month released its own 2016 White Paper. It has re-enforced and extended the massive gap with respect to general capability, investment and strategic outlook that these two relatively wealthy, resource-rich liberal democracies view their defence sector. One of the key aspects of the forthcoming New Zealand DWP is if there will be a move away from the current policy setting towards greater inter-operability with respect to acquisition projects and operational capability with their Australian counterpart. Australia has been somewhat disappointed since the 1990s of the under-investment in regional defence and security of its neighbouring defence partner. This criticism mockingly best described by a former Australian foreign policy commentator as New Zealand’s ‘lone sheep’ defence strategy. Canberra has at times been frustrated by Wellington’s myopic and parochial worldview with respect to defence and by its predilection towards prioritising popularist domestic considerations on defence policy before considering regional co-operation and integration partnership. The Australians have never quite swallowed New Zealand’s constant excuse of maintaining an ‘independent foreign policy’ and privately see it as a convenient opt out clause for avoiding further investment in and maintaining of combat capabilities. Especially when Australia has continually worn the greater proportional burden in the sense of capability and contribution to the regional security umbrella. In every aspect of its external relations both New Zealand and Australia demonstrate interdependency, that important and mature balancing act between recognising sovereign independence, but also the notion of depending on each other to help each other and by that helping oneself. Defence is the one area where that context is unbalanced. New Zealand is too dependent on Australia and that weakness undermines the integrity of all other subsets in the Australia-New Zealand relationship. What then is really worth watching out for following the release of the New Zealand DWP is the reaction narrative of Canberra over the next few months.
As a people, New Zealanders during the later half of the Cold War started to gravitate towards an anti-defence mentality. This began with their involvement in the Vietnam war between 1965 to 1972. Though that contribution was small in the scheme of things, only about 3,000 service personnel over the years that they were there, it was a symbolic gesture that quickly outlived its purpose and outstayed its welcome. By 1970 anti-war protests were common amongst the student population. What really kicked off the collective aversion to defence was the nuclear testing by the French on Moruroa Atoll in 1973 and the alarming rate in which the USSR and United States were at the time creating ever larger nuclear stockpiles. The anti-nuclear movement quickly widened throughout the 1970s into a general ‘anti-defence – anti-western alliance’ movement. This reached its crescendo in the mid 1980s when New Zealand deemed itself a nuclear-free zone and banned nuclear ship visits. This promptly unravelled their ANZUS defence partnership with the Americans. During this same period the French were back to their old tricks of again testing even more nuclear weapons in the South Pacific. In 1985 the New Zealand public’s anti-defence anti-nuclear posture was sealed into infamy when the French defence intelligence agents bombed the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour. With that act of state-sponsored terrorism, and the diplomatic freeze placed by its nuclear armed allies, the United States, which saw New Zealand’s anti-nuke policy as a contagion, only emboldened the smaller nation into a more radical rejection of defence orthodoxy.
“In New Zealand pragmatisms was trumped by emotionalised symbolic gestures, defence policy and diplomacy was fisked by desperately wanting the world’s admiration and attention by an attitude of we are more progressively enlightened, we know better than you!”
Essentially, what miffed the New Zealand public and then Labour government was the arrogance and heavy handedness of the American and French reaction. The growing sense of frustration over the lack of containment and continuing development of nuclear weapons by New Zealand’s ‘friends’ and their ‘unfriendly’ reaction to that principled policy, poisoned not just positive diplomatic and defence relationships, but also caused the country to politically internalise on itself and start undermining its own defence capabilities. New Zealand went from cogently arguing for the eradication of nuclear weapons by larger powers, into the eradication of much of its own modest military capability. When mixed up with popularist nationalism and aggrieved righteousness dressed up as an ‘independent’ foreign policy, a sustained economic downturn, and the ruthless opportunism of mid 1990’s neo-liberal economic rationalisation – read, save money – the sensible common ground at the centre caved in. Yes, the Reagan administration over-reacted in attempting to punish New Zealand. Yes, the French were arrogant and insensitive, but New Zealand’s political class should have been more dispassionate and followed the diplomatic pathway that senior defence and foreign affairs had prepared to provide an acceptable and less acrimonious solution. In New Zealand, pragmatism was trumped by emotionalised symbolic gestures, defence policy and diplomacy was fisked by desperately wanting the world’s admiration and attention by an attitude of ‘we are more progressively enlightened, we know better than you!’ Labour Cabinet Minister at the time, Michael Basset, later wrote that the integrity of our anti-nuclear legislation could have been respected and maintained along with the formal alliance with the United States. Even by the turn of the millennium to have a mildly pragmatic-realist posture on defence and security matters in New Zealand, marked one out as being very unhip and unfashionable at best, and an evil warmongering fascist at worst. Those with contrarian views were shifted out or shouted down.
The New Zealand public, particularly those under 40, are mostly blissfully unaware of what outside problems could escalate and cloud their futures. It is not really their fault, it is simply that they have never been exposed to any of the intellectual arguments either through education, the media or political discourse in a way that would actually achieve any knowledge, appreciation or concern about the geo-political future of the region that they live in. The rare debates offered by the New Zealand media when it comes to defence policy are dominated by either contrarian activists, non-specialist journalists, party political hacks, and hardly ever have a leading defence professional or international relations academic involved in contributing their expert view. It is no wonder defence policy does not resonate with the public as an issue of importance, and therefore achieve any political acceptance or advantage by way of the ballot box. Because it is not sexy politics at the ballot box, it can, therefore, come across a bit too hard to explain, too expensive to fund and support, and subsequently allow for defence budgets to be shrunk and capabilities cut by governments through sheer political expediency.
Nevertheless, one could argue that in recent years the rump of the New Zealand public have moved back towards a more neutral position over defence. They are neither against it with the kind of popularism that existed 20 odd years ago, but they are neither for a major change, whether it be a strong desire to significantly increase defence spending or undertake a complete reversal of current policy settings. There is not an appetite for a muscular defence orientation of the kind the country possessed through the middle part of the century up to the mid 1960s height of the Cold War. Nor should there be. There is, however, a tangible understanding that the current defence posture developed at the beginning of the post-cold war era, implemented on the eve of the millennium, is now essentially out of date and a one-dimensional response to a complex set of geo-political circumstances. This understanding is mirrored in the writings of the more prominent New Zealand-based defence and security academics such as Peter Greener, Ron Smith, Lance McBeath, Robert Patman, and Paul Buchannan who all argue, albeit in different ways and contexts, that New Zealand’s defence thinking must move on from the status quo and undertake a rethink, that injects a semblance of realism concerning the likely future strategic environment. That there is a need to step away from the early post-Cold War sentiments of the past that still dominate discussion around force structure, procurement and development. The five academics noted above come from all parts of the political paradigm: Smith from the libertarian right, through to Buchannan from the social democrat left. They all recognise that policy settings must change and challenge prior norms as the world changes and constantly evolves. In some ways the challenge for defence policy in New Zealand is to get the ideological motives out of the equation. At least from the core of academic thought within the nation’s defence discussion, the watch keepers in the ivory towers have looked some distance ahead and realised this.
The terror events of 11 September, 2001 have played a significant part in initiating public movement away from its prior anti-defence mentality across to one of modest engagement, as did the contributions that New Zealand made to the instability in Timor Leste in 2000 and the Solomon Island civil unrest in 2002 under United Nations security mandates. These events all adding to the a growing sense that the Asia-Pacific region of which New Zealand is part, has a number of rising tensions, turbulent histories, wealth and resource imbalances, and in many cases poor relationships both between and within nations. Tensions that have the capacity to quickly unravel into conflict. Potential flashpoint zones in the Asia-Pacific region include the possible conflict in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, due to potential oil and gas field exploration, fisheries catchments, and other exploitable resources, in which a number of Asia nations, including China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam have cross-competing territorial claims. The Senkakus, the Spratlys, the Sakhalinsk, Pratas and Dokto are all islands in the region in which countries have their national prestige at stake and are exclusive economic zones currently contested, each having a recent history of incidents involving heightened security tensions – the thorny issue of the re-emergence of Russia into the Pacific, piracy, and the constant threat of religious or ideologically-based terrorism, which is still ever present. Finally, the question of China further projecting her growing military power towards Taiwan or indeed an escalation of her ‘island’ creation programme as future military bases for greater maritime projection within the South China Sea are just some of the more pressing potential threat points that may appear on the horizon far more quickly than the New Zealand public realise. Sated on its diet of easy access to oil and cheap imported consumer goods through freely navigable trade routes, such events could drastically effect and change peaceful lives, and significantly, in New Zealand’s case, stop cold its open export markets and planeloads of arriving tourists.
The NZDF in recent years has been engaged in supporting counter terror activities in Afghanistan, but its primary mission was involved in a civil re-construction programme to repair infrastructure, such as schools, medical facilities, bridges and water supplies in the province of Baniyan. Mindful of its role in the South Pacific, NZDF also undertook a considerable humanitarian and disaster support mission following the tragic Tsunami that hit Samoa in 2009. It is currently making a further contribution to Fiji following the devastation of Cyclone Winston. Furthermore, the 2010-2011 series of earthquakes in Canterbury, which took 185 lives, destroyed thousands of building and cost over $30 billion in damages, finally gave the New Zealand public their chance to see the NZDF in action by playing a significant role in the logistical support during the initial emergency phases of the disaster and over the months of recovery that followed. In all of these roles the NZDF was committed, professional and capable. To a certain extent one positive that came out of the post-2000 change defence posture was that New Zealand did invest and train for such contingencies.
There is no doubt that defence in the context of a relatively small, geographically distant, yet wealthy liberal democracy in the Southern Pacific like New Zealand, does have a role to play. It is a role contributing to regional order under the rules of international law, contributing to both peacekeeping missions under UN Chapter VI Security Council mandates, as well as being able to contribute to the enforcement of peace under UN Chapter VII mandates using combat capabilities. The strategic cul-de-sac which New Zealand placed itself into following the end of the Cold War, was to align the weighting of its defence capability too much towards the Chapter VI UNSC mission scenario, whilst it pursued a misguided and ideological disconnect that with the Cold War peace dividend and a belief that the Asia-Pacific region would stay benign in the future, it could let its previous UNSC Chapter VII capabilities fade away. Unfortunately, it had to do both. Wishful thinking about how one politically wants the world to be will not always end up the way in which one desires. That was the fundamental failure of the New Zealand government at the turn of the century. Whether or not that failure will be addressed and recognised in the 2016 Defence White Paper remains to be scene. But, at some stage, the Wellington-based political class and the wider New Zealand public must both recognise the necessity to at least re-orientate policy and recover.
Peacekeeping, humanitarian support and disaster relief are indeed important missions. Core roles in which New Zealand must continue to resource and develop, just as much as it should protect its borders and conduct fisheries patrols, customs interceptions and support of civil power. However, one must not forget that what lies at the heart of any modern defence force in a liberal democracy, is the capability and responsibility to provide adequate and independent combat components that are able to assist the wider regional and international communities stability, and support United Nations Chapter VII scenarios that may unfold. Real ‘independence’ in foreign policy means that a nation can choose to contribute its capabilities or not, as the case may be, but that does not provide a nation with a moral-free pass to avoid the responsibility to at least be resourced, trained and prepared to respond.
“Out of the previous DWP did come one inspirational significant strategic policy direction. An over-arching plan for the future of the NZDF called Future 2035, based around an amphibious taskforce and a pathway of projects to get there.”
New Zealand’s defence outlook from both a geo-political and national security sensibility, the timing of the 2016 Defence White Paper is well over due. It is already a year late and though it is to be released “very soon”, we have all heard that before. The current government, back in 2009 when it took over the reigns of power from the Helen Clark-led Labour government, spent a year putting out its first defence white paper. Subsequently published in late 2010 it really did not promise much other than following the previous Labour government’s defence policies, albeit couched in a tougher language. There was a lot of earnest talk or ‘management speak’ about value for money, reallocating resources from the ‘back office’ to the ‘front office’, the South Pacific being ‘our backyard’, and finally that there was no new money to follow through with it.
Out of the previous DWP did come one inspirational significant strategic policy direction. An over-arching plan for the future of the NZDF called Future 2035, based around an amphibious taskforce and a pathway of projects to get there. However, there were no specifics and much of it incorporated previously planned projects and even then the projected funding allocations for all that were stretched out even further into the distant future. For an island nation, an amphibious, maritime-focused defence direction makes complete sense, and one wonders how on earth that this most obvious strategic proposal has never been coherently explored in the past. The first building blocks to this amphibious-orientated Future 2035 taskforce to get the magic touch of modest taxpayers’ largesses were the New Zealand Army. There must have been some special logic in restructuring one’s land force capability first, when your DWP’s strategic outlook predisposes towards maritime focus. I guess the logic was that it was the easiest to do, to be seen to be doing something and, of course, the most honest logic of all was that it cost the least to do. The required big ticket items, cost-wise, to implement the Future 2035 taskforce, have been pushed off into the future. Ships and aircraft are never cheap. The even bigger questions are – will the 2016 New Zealand Defence White Paper make active headway to implementing its long-range Future 2035 plan, and finally stop procrastinating over acquisitions and put its money where its mouth is? Will it further engage in positive defence relationships and contributions within the wider Asia region as a valued partner or will it again push all the hard decisions ever forward into an unknown future? The 2016 Defence White Paper will soon let us know.
Image | Phillip Capper