This year saw the third China-New Zealand Strategic Consultation between the armed forces of the two nations. In what ways has New Zealand been working with China’s armed forces?
There are multiple levels to that question. The first and probably most important relationship we have is the security dialogue, which is really about the understanding of what you might call the security architecture of the Asia-Pacific region.
New Zealand has an interest, as do other countries in the Asia-Pacific, in the region evolving in a predictable and stable way. The growth and prosperity of the last 50 years is totally dependent on that, and by and large, the conflicts that existed 50 years ago no longer exist. As a result of that, we’ve had this enormous growth in trade and prosperity, and that’s underpinned by the understanding and relationships between nations in the region, some formal and some informal. The more specific defence force issues have been based more around humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and this looks to be a growing area of interest to defence forces in the region.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The second element is involvement in peacekeeping operations. China is really a new entrant into this field—they say about 15,000 personnel have been deployed over a period of about 10 years, which is an extremely small percentage of their defence force. As a result, the PLA hasn’t been historically honed to that role and they’re having to learn it.
In addition, there’s also an area around maritime security generally. There have been a number of naval visits from New Zealand to China. We only have a small navy, but they really do get out and about.
Australia is obviously a key ally for New Zealand, but in its defence white paper last year it indicated it saw China as a potential threat. How does New Zealand see China’s military rise?
It’s inevitable that China will have a greater role in the region. Bear in mind also that they are now New Zealand’s second-largest trading partner, and I think Australia’s largest trading partner now. China’s growth has been profound, and since New Zealand has had a free trade agreement with China we’ve had spectacular levels of growth in trade. So clearly, China is going to take a deeper interest in the regional architecture and also the stability of the region. You can’t have trade, growth and prosperity without stability, and so their defence forces have been growing in the past few years.
But as a percentage of their GDP, and if you look at the number of people involved, it’s actually a relatively small defence force, and certainly historically its been a very inward-looking one. Certainly as they’ve become more outward-looking in trade and investment, their defence forces have also become more outward-looking. But everyone’s interest is that this evolves in a way that benefits everyone. That’s why I think the ASEAN Plus 8 meeting, which is effectively the first formal meeting of all the defence ministers in the region, is very valuable.
What would you say New Zealand has to offer in terms of security in the Asia-Pacific?
We’re a country of four million people, though sometimes I think our partners think we’re a country of ten million. And I guess there’s a reason they often think that, and it’s because New Zealand is an internationally engaged nation, irrespective of who the government is. It’s a fundamental feature of who we are, because of our origins, our history, our trade.
So what does that mean in practical terms? Our first responsibility is to our immediate region, which is essentially the South-west Pacific. That’s an immense area—it’s one-twelfth of the world’s surface. But we’re still expected by the nations within the region to be there and available to deal with virtually every foreseeable contingency. We’ve seen it with Timor-Leste and the Solomons for example, but also with the tsunami in Samoa, which killed more than 150 people—that’s a big disaster for such a small country. Samoa absolutely expected New Zealand to respond instantly, to have aircraft on the ground, to have medical teams on the ground within 24 hours. And we did that. And the New Zealand public expects that because there are such deep relations between the people of New Zealand and the Samoan people.
Beyond the South-west Pacific, New Zealand also has a deep relationship with Asia in terms of trade and investment and people flows. And it’s very clear to me that nations within the region that are deemed to be full participants don’t cherry pick—they don’t just say we want the trade, we want the investment, we want the tourists, but don’t trouble us with security issues. This isn’t seen as an expression of partnership. So we do take an active role, primarily naval, within the region. Our navy is designed to have capabilities and relevance around maritime security.
Outside the Pacific, New Zealand has also contributed to UN peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan and the Middle East, for example. Is there any scope for an expanded peacekeeping role for your country’s forces?
We’re at the maximum level of what we can do—our defence forces are stretched to do what they do now. But we will certainly always see ourselves as having the ability to do what we do now, and we see that as New Zealand’s role in the world, playing an active role driven by our history, our relationships and interests in stability as a trading nation.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key was one of the leaders invited to the nuclear security summit hosted in April. One of New Zealand’s stated goals is universal nuclear disarmament. But with the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear programme on hold and Iran’s continued intransigence over its programme, how optimistic can you really be?
There are multiple levels to the nuclear issue. It’s proliferation to countries that don’t currently have nuclear weapons, like Iran, and so forth—that’s one part, an important part. But in North Korea’s case, to go nuclear is a dead end. Yes, they’ve got people’s attention, but to what end? If North Korea wants to progress, it will need to use its imagination. There are plenty of models within their own precepts that they could follow in terms of economic growth – economic growth and having a communist government are not irreconcilable. You only have to look, for example, at the growth of Vietnam over the last two decades, which has been truly dramatic. And you only need to see the constructive leadership role Vietnam is playing in ASEAN to see how constructive they could be. You would think North Korea could see that, but they don’t seem able.
Meanwhile, Iran is backing itself into the same corner. Yes, they get people’s attention, but they end up going backward at the same time. That’s one aspect of proliferation.
The other aspect is the general level of nuclear weapons amongst the nuclear weapons states. So New Zealand has an interest in both those areas, so the world can become a safer place. And just as peacekeeping is part of NZ’s self identification, the country’s efforts around a nuclear-free world are also very much part of its commitment to building a more secure world.