Defence white paper a sign of changing times: Part I

In this two part series I look at the new Defence White Paper which sets out the threats and opportunities New Zealand faces and how the Defence Force contributes to dealing with them. In this part, I examine the context of the White Paper.

During the Cold War, a defence white paper would have focussed on the threat of nuclear war posed by Russia and China. The threat posted to South Pacific islands would have been largely based on whether the former U.S.S.R. or China could gain a foothold there using Indonesia as a proxy (Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975 and the failure to condemn it still ranks as one of New Zealand’s biggest foreign policy fails).

Following the withdrawal from the A.N.Z.U.S. alliance, and the French bombing of the Rainbow Warrior a rapid reassessment of who our real allies are would have been undertaken. Australia were still our best ally, the British were friendly, whilst the United States and France were very much on the outer in terms of military co-operation. In terms of the South Pacific nations, respect for New Zealand soared.

33 years later the Chinese threat still exists, as much from military installations being established under the guise of military activity. Concerns over the influence of their telecommunications companies exists, with Huawei being subject to trading restrictions in the U.S. over whether their devices can steal information. Relations with Russia remain cordial – New Zealand does not feature so highly in Russia’s foreign policy estimates, which is reflected in our trading arrangements with Moscow.. The relations with France have largely healed without either side forgetting what happened in July 1985.

It is the South Pacific where things have changed the most. The Solomon Islands, which in 2003 was considered a failed state by the Government’s of New Zealand and Australia, was the subject of a combined mission to restore the rule of law. Whilst this has been successful and was wound up in 2017, there is a risk other nations such as Papua New Guinea may require such assistance in the future. A combination of corruption in the Government, weak economies, internal instability – some islands are virtually lawless make ideal situations for organized crime and possibly the facilitation of terrorist elements in the worst case scenario

Whilst New Zealand has identified potential risks in the Middle East, it is acknowledged that our influence is limited. Other than be an advocate for the rule of law there is not a lot New Zealand can really do. The real movement , a change of focus in foreign policy, has been to make the Pacific a top priority. This seeks to acknowledge the considerable risks of further destabilization, the influence of big power politics which have not in the past been very well received and New Zealand traditional role as a peace keeper, proponent of international law and human freedoms.

Now a third element – the environment – has been added. This acknowledges that many of New Zealand’s South Pacific neighbours have  a day-to-day struggle with the sea. Salinisation of the land means crops are failing. Parts of some very low lying nations such as Kiribati and Tuvalu are inundated twice daily with the tidal regime and flood completely in storms or even tropical depressions. Unless this is addressed, some of these places may be uninhabitable in a couple of decades, or become ungovernable, again creating a security risk.

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