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NZ gives gloomy assessment of defence environment

4th February 2022 - 00:40 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Christchurch


HMNZS Canterbury is a critical asset for missions such as disaster relief in the South Pacific. (Gordon Arthur)

Strategic competition and climate change were highlighted as the primary security threats for New Zealand in a recently issued report.

The New Zealand MoD issued its Defence Assessment 2021, subtitled A Rough Sea Can Still Be Navigated, at the end of last year.

The 36-page document came to five conclusions about the security of the country. The first is that the two primary challenges to defence interests are strategic competition and climate change.

For example, it fingered China as being central in strategic competition. 

‘China’s rise is the major driver for this competition. Globally, strategic competition is most visible between China and the United States, but all other states are involved to varying degrees.’ This ‘will increase the potential for confrontation and conflict’.

Indeed, considerable space was devoted to China in the report. 

‘China’s external objectives have expanded over time, as has the expression of China’s “core interests”. This has been accompanied by an increasingly strong nationalist narrative. Ultimately, Beijing is seeking to reshape the international system to make it more compatible with China’s governance model and national values, and with China recognised as a global leader.’

Wellington has publicly criticised China for militarising underwater reefs in the South China Sea and conducting cyberattacks against the country. 

However, it is not only China eroding the international rules-based system, for the assessment accused Russia of the same.

As for climate change, more extreme weather patterns and natural disasters will become evident.

As if to punctuate that conclusion, New Zealand soon found itself supporting Tonga after an underwater volcano erupted on 15 January and caused a tsunami. New Zealand quickly sent a P-3K2 Orion on a reconnaissance flight, a C-130H on a supply flight, the OPV HMNZS Wellington and replenishment vessel HMNZS Aotearoa to Tonga.

New Zealand sent an OPV and replenishment vessel to Tonga’s aid after the South Pacific kingdom was hit by a volcanic eruption and tsunami. (NZDF)

As another example of climate change stresses, increased fishing competition is bringing increased challenges to Pacific countries’ ability to maintain control over both their regional fisheries and maritime domains.

Moving to the second conclusion in the Defence Assessment 2021, these challenges ‘are increasing and there is nothing to indicate the trends will reverse. Unchecked, they pose a threat to New Zealand’s sovereignty and other key national security interests’.

Indeed, this strategic competition will be increasingly played out in the so-called ‘grey zone’, with activities such as propaganda, cyber interference, sabotage, clandestine military action and foreign interference.

Specific threats mentioned are the establishment of a military or dual-use base in the Pacific by a hostile state; extra-regional military-backed resource exploitation (e.g. fishing, undersea oil/gas); a military confrontation by accident or design; and contested responses to security events (e.g. natural disaster responses).

Last December, the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) sent a Boeing 757 and troops to the Solomon Islands after civil unrest erupted in Honiara. These riots had an anti-Chinese component to them. While Australia and New Zealand took the lead in deploying troops and police there, they would have viewed any military intervention by China as provocative.

Thirdly, the document recommended that, as a response to these threats, New Zealand’s defence policy needs to shift from risk management to a more deliberate and proactive policy with clear priorities.

While the Pacific is the principal realm for NZDF efforts, the report also discusses Antarctica. 

‘Despite their extreme remoteness and environmental harshness, the Southern Ocean and Antarctica are becoming increasingly strategically important (as is the Arctic), and are changing as a result of climate change and increasing human activity. Antarctica is a potential location for a range of military and security-related activities, notably in relation to space, and both Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are seen by some as potential sources for strategic and natural resources.’

Indeed, the MoD expects increasing future competition in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, even if things are ‘broadly stable’ right now.

The New Zealand military is small but, of necessity, versatile. (Gordon Arthur)

The greatest potential for clashes in the Indo-Pacific were listed as: tensions across the Taiwan Strait; maritime incidents in the South or East China Seas; North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes; and conflicts in and through space and cyberspace.

Fourthly, the Defence Assessment 2021 advises that, as a small nation, New Zealand should concentrate defence efforts on the Pacific, as that is where it can have the most significant impact and is most affected by security threats.

Furthermore, some 99% of New Zealand trade volume is conducted by ship, so protecting its sea lines of communication is critical.

Finally, the report explained that this prioritisation does not preclude the NZDF from contributing farther afield, especially in the Indo-Pacific.

It acknowledges that ‘Australia is New Zealand’s only formal defence ally, and New Zealand’s most important international partner overall’. However, it also has close links to Canada, the UK and US through such groupings as Five Eyes.

Within Asia, the document stated that Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam are the most important.

In summary, the document gloomily concluded: ‘New Zealand’s strategic environment has worsened significantly over recent years ... Rather than continuing with policy settings developed for a more benign environment, New Zealand now requires a new approach.’

Gordon Arthur


Gordon Arthur

Gordon Arthur is the Asia Pacific editor for Shephard Media. Born in Scotland and educated …

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