Pacific reset for the Defence Force? That depends

Speaking in Paris, the first stop on her European visit, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern connected the dots between two of her Government’s central foreign policy priorities: the South Pacific and climate change. “New Zealand does not simply sit in the Pacific,” she told the Paris Institute of Political Studies. “We are the Pacific too, and we are doing our best to stand with our family as they face these threats.”

A strong Pacific emphasis has also featured in Foreign Minister Winston Peters’ early contributions to the coalition Government’s approach to the world. His signature moment to date is his address in Sydney where he said it was “critical for New Zealand to embark on a new, re-energised Pacific strategy”.

​At least a little bit of politicking is going on here. Peters is determined to show that National — which undervalued New Zealand First’s potential as a coalition partner — also dropped the ball on fairly much every foreign policy question when it was in power. And the Prime Minister will know that a South Pacific focus plays well to Labour’s base, and will suit the Greens also.

National might well respond by saying that they've been Pacific champions too. After all, in the successful campaign for a United Nations Security Council seat, then-Foreign Minister Murray McCully paraded New Zealand’s credentials as a small state that understood the concerns of its Pacific neighbours.

Moreover, National might point to an argument in the 2010 Defence White Paper (the first such document in over a decade) that “tasks in and around New Zealand and the South Pacific will be the starting point for choosing the military capabilities of the NZDF [New Zealand Defence Force]”. And in the next White Paper in 2016 the Key government emphasised that growing challenges in New Zealand’s immediate region required additional investment in military capabilities. Here is one important example of that logic:

“The Defence Force plays a critical role in maintaining New Zealand’s awareness of activities in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the Southern Ocean and the South Pacific. The increasing number, range and sophistication of actors in these areas are generating corresponding increases in demand for maritime surveillance.”

​Those three contiguous areas of focus — the South Pacific, New Zealand and the Southern Ocean/Antarctica — appeared to have been a big part of National’s public logic for the $20 billion capital investment projection for the next 15 years. As Associate Professor David Capie, Director of Victoria University of Wellington’s Centre for Strategic Studies, argued at the time, that closer regional justification appeared to be designed to increase the chances of cross-partisan buy-in.

But with other more publicly popular areas of government spending competing for attention, the coalition’s willingness to prioritise defence will face extra challenges. Finance Minister Grant Robertson has complained that National’s $20 billion idea was an unfunded commitment. The likely outcome is that while the Ardern Government may endorse the idea of a Pacific-New Zealand-Southern Ocean focus, it will not buy National’s price-tag.

A defence force designed very strictly around known requirements in New Zealand’s immediate region would constrain those wider deployment options.

The Government could still announce a Pacific reset for defence, but one that involves a more stringent look at what that immediate neighbourhood demands of New Zealand.

Some of the new investment items would remain no-brainers. One of those would be the ice-strengthened tanker, currently on order, which will be a valuable force multiplier, including in operations involving Australia.

Another agreeable priority is strategic airlift aircraft to replace the Hercules and 757s, which will be useful in going south, for missions around New Zealand, and for disaster relief and peace support operations in the Pacific. Putting aside missions further afield for a moment, there is also a domestic logic for the special forces, including for counter-terrorism purposes. New Zealand will always need a deployable army for Pacific and other nearer regional missions, as the experiences in Solomon Islands and Timor Leste showed the last Labour-led government.

But a close set of eyes will have noticed that between its two White Papers, National was building a logic for capabilities to deploy with close partners well beyond New Zealand and its immediate region. In particular, advanced maritime capabilities were becoming an increased priority — hence the upgrading of the ANZAC frigates and of the P3 Orions, including for subsurface detection roles. The first of these upgrades provided an early headache for Defence Minister Ron Mark, who announced that, with more funds having to be diverted to the frigate upgrade, the NZDF would be getting “an off-the-shelf commercial dive and hydrographic vessel” instead of the much more capable military-spec littoral operations craft envisaged in the 2016 White Paper. But the second upgrade will be even more of a challenge in funding terms: the favoured option for replacing the Orions has long been Boeing P-8s, which Australia is also purchasing but which do not come cheaply.

The coalition Government will undoubtedly agree that New Zealand needs maritime patrol and surveillance options, including for Pacific, New Zealand EEZ and Southern Ocean missions. Together these constitute a vast maritime area that requires capability investment by any government in Wellington.

What is less clear is how much the Pacific-plus side of the debate will win out. And the P8s are potentially vulnerable here. Their sub-surface functionality is prized for more demanding military missions in the wider Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. Many Greens and Labour supporters might well ask whether those same high-end abilities are absolutely necessary closer to home.

Of course, any coalition government, National- or Labour-led, will want options to deploy beyond New Zealand’s immediate region. Will the Ardern Government still want New Zealand to have options for multilateral interception missions in the Persian Gulf should these be needed again? The answer is likely to be yes. Does it believe the Clark government was right to send forces to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks? Very probably yes. Would an Ardern government want New Zealand to remain an active participant in the Five Power Defence Arrangements with Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and the United Kingdom? The likely answer is in the affirmative. Would New Zealand want to keep participating in United States-led Rim of the Pacific Exercise? Again, the answer is very probably yes.

But a defence force designed very strictly around known requirements in New Zealand’s immediate region would constrain those wider deployment options. And here the decision on replacing the Orions becomes the most important inflexion point for the NZDF in some time. What the answer will be depends partly on whether Ron Mark can persuade his cabinet colleagues to look favourably on the defence expenditure part of the Government’s overall budget commitments. But it also depends on what sort of Pacific reset the coalition has in mind.

This article first appeared on the Incline website, which publishes original analysis and commentary on issues and trends that impact New Zealand’s international relations.

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