Questions about strategy and defence

Defence Minister Andrew Little delivered three important papers last Friday.

They are being interpreted as promoting the present shift towards closer ties with New Zealand’s traditional allies. At the same time, China is specifically identified as a threat.

Geopolitical analyst Geoffrey Miller, formerly from Dunedin, has described the National Security Strategy, the Defence Policy and Strategy and the Future Force Design Principles as part of "the biggest shake-up for New Zealand’s foreign and defence policy in a generation".

Former prime minister Helen Clark, meanwhile, said this was just the beginning. New Zealand was "abandoning its capacity to think for itself and is cutting and pasting from Five Eyes partners". The drumbeat from officials has been consistent on this for some time. There was an "orchestrated campaign" to join part of Aukus.

Aukus is the relatively new pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. There is a push for New Zealand to join "Pillar Two" of the pact, a decision facing the government.

New Zealand, though, continues to walk the tightrope with its biggest trading partner, China.

The Chinese government benefits from a more conciliatory and moderate Western voice, and New Zealand is dependent on China as its biggest trading partner. Nevertheless, the Chinese government’s efforts to increase its "political, economic, and security influence" in the Pacific are recognised as a potential risk to regional security.

"The Chinese government’s assertive pursuit of its strategic objectives is the major driver for the new era of strategic competition among states," the Defence Policy Strategy Statement said.

"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."

Paradoxically, it is Labour, which pursued the post-Anzus "independent" foreign policy, that is now "hawkish" on defence and the Chinese threat.

Mr Little makes it plain New Zealand does not live in a "benign" strategic environment. It had to be prepared to contribute in a credible way with like-minded countries in its own defence.

Defence forces needed to be combat-ready, and not just equipped to help in civil defence emergencies or fisheries protection.

Risks also included climate change, terrorism, cyber-attacks, transnational crime, misinformation and disinformation.

Mr Little listed defence spending at about 1% of GDP and said this would have to rise. Australia’s is about 2% and climbing. It is little wonder Australia sometimes sees New Zealand as a defence freeloader.

Defence is classically seen as a country’s insurance policy. The papers are correct in identifying a riskier and scarier world, although it could be argued the Chinese threat is overhyped.

It is all very well to try to rely on a rules-based world order when those rules are sometimes ignored. Russia’s invasion of independent Ukraine is a continuing and reverberating shock to any complacency.

It was pre 9/11 when Miss Clark in 2001 famously referenced New Zealand’s "incredibly benign" strategic environment. In 2008, Defence Minister Phil Goff said no-one was "remotely interested" in invading New Zealand.

Mr Little said the government had not been very good at talking about the risks and defence. The onus was now on it to talk publicly on these matters and what New Zealand needed to do to preserve and protect its interests.

The papers have prompted reactions and discussion. That is healthy.

New Zealand is, despite the fiscal pressure, going to have to increase its defence spending. It is going to have to have "combat-capable" defence forces able to function effectively in the modern world.

Less clear is just how close New Zealand’s foreign policy and alignment with those traditional allies must be. However, it is, undoubtedly, becoming increasingly difficult for this country to maintain its small degree of independence. China’s increasing assertiveness and its direct involvement in the likes of Solomon Islands make it harder and more dangerous for New Zealand to look the other way.