Foreign Affairs

Water, water everywhere: NZ’s maritime security threats

As an island nation, water looms large for New Zealand on the security front. Climate change, drug trafficking and countries competing for influence were among the concerns raised at a conference to discuss threats in our maritime environment, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

New Zealand may be a drop in the global bucket when it comes to land mass, but the area of ocean we protect is another matter entirely.

Opening the Centre for Strategic Studies’ conference on our maritime security environment, NZ Navy Chief Rear Admiral John Martin likened New Zealand to a body with its organs on the outside.

“The circulatory system is not sitting in the fluids of the body but in the fluids of the Pacific, and we don’t understand that as a country.”

New Zealanders don’t fully understand the importance of the water around us when it comes to trade and security, Martin said, a sentiment echoed by other experts at the Victoria University event.

So what are the main threats to our maritime environment, and what is being done to tackle them?

Climate change, drug trafficking loom large

Climate change loomed large on the agenda, with Martin citing the increased frequency of severe weather events having “the most lasting and visible impact on our region’s ability to respond to security challenges”.

It is a view shared by Defence Minister Ron Mark, who has spoken to Newsroom previously about the Defence Force’s “war on climate change” and potential changes to migration as a result of rising seas.

Martin also pointed to the threat posed by growth in drug trafficking, as did Commodore Stephen Woodall, the Australian Navy’s assistant secretary for the Pacific and Timor-Leste.

“Worryingly, we don’t know what percentage of the trade isn’t being found,” Woodall said.

Jamie Bamford, NZ Customs’ intelligence, investigations and enforcement group manager, said there had been significant changes to trafficking activity in recent years.

"We are no longer immune - distance is no longer our friend."

Bamford said that was fuelled in part by the record prices that Kiwis paid for narcotics: a kilogram of methamphetamine had a wholesale price of about $6000 in the United States, but up to $500,000 in New Zealand, making the latter a far more appealing destination for traffickers.

The country was being targeted by Asian organised crime networks, but there had been a recent “explosion” in regional activity from South American and Mexican cartels.

Bamford said adapted fishing vessels were being used to bring narcotics to the Pacific from Asia and other areas, with New Zealand’s geographical isolation no longer the barrier it once was.

“We are no longer immune - distance is no longer our friend.”

Another problem was what he called “grey areas” regarding New Zealand’s ability to make arrests in offshore waters.

Customs was seeking to address that with a draft bill extending maritime powers, allowing authorities to stop, board, search or seize vessels in international waters if they had reason to suspect they were carrying drugs - something they can now only do out to 24 nautical miles.

'Crowbar diplomacy'

Then there are the threats posed by competing countries, with Martin referring to “crowbar diplomacy” in nearby Pacific islands as new relationships are developed.

“We have a very very sensitive, important relationship with our near neighbours which we need to protect and understand,” he said, referring to the Government’s recently announced 'Pacific reset' as a welcome boost.

Martin also expressed concern about Antarctica, saying the white expanse had become a “new grey space” with some countries seeming to attach less value to the Antarctic Treaty System than others.

“We need to ensure people who operate down there abide by the treaty, understand their responsibilities, and are open and transparent.”

Woodall spoke about “increasingly aggressive actions” from some countries regarding territorial disputes - almost certainly a reference to China, which he did not name but whose building of military installations on reclaimed islands has led to a number of legal disputes.

Intelligence, multilateralism key

Addressing these challenges is far from easy, a fact acknowledged by everyone at the event.

Ministry of Transport chief executive Peter Mersi, who chairs the Government’s inter-agency maritime oversight committee, said New Zealand could look to space-based and autonomous systems to improve its surveillance.

“We have a very large maritime area to look after and we have limited maritime capabilities so that does place a premium on ensuring we have effective intelligence, great coordination.”

“We’ve got the fourth-largest EEZ whether we like it or not, and if we don’t look after it someone else is going to take it.”

Ministry of Defence deputy secretary Tony Lynch said New Zealand needed greater defence engagement and continued investment in maritime capabilities - although he nodded to the Government’s current budget pressures, saying the ministry was aware of “domestic challenges in what is a tight fiscal environment”.

MFAT’s lead international security adviser Mike Asplet said multilateral approaches to the sea would also be essential, as it is for nearly all foreign policy matters given New Zealand’s size.

“We cannot solve this alone and we have to ensure we spend energy in engaging others to assist us.”

As Martin noted, maintaining a sense of sea blindness is not an option.

“We’ve got the fourth-largest EEZ whether we like it or not, and if we don’t look after it someone else is going to take it.”

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