The Debate

New Zealand in Australia’s Asian Century

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The Debate

New Zealand in Australia’s Asian Century

Will New Zealand get lost as Australia deepens its commitment to the greater Indo-Pacific region?

It’s hard for folks to get excited about the Australian–New Zealand defense relationship. It’s uncontroversial because the two countries are already close partners in a fairly low octane South Pacific neighborhood, where both sides are expected to work together. However, it’s often overshadowed by links with bigger and more distant players. Chief among these is Australia’s long-standing and very close relationship with the United States. Stephen Smith and Jonathan Coleman, the Defense Ministers of Australia and New Zealand, respectively, may have met in the same city (Perth) and the same month (November) for their annual Australian–New Zealand Defense Ministerial consultations as the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultation (AUSMIN) talks which had earlier involved Smith, his U.S. counterpart Leon Panetta, Bob Carr, the Foreign Minister of Australia, and his U.S. counterpart Hillary Clinton. But you would have to be from Mars to expect the media interest to be anywhere near equal when comparing friendly South Pacific coordination and global superpower relations.

If I were an Australian defense planner—a tough job in today’s austere times—I’d still be looking to the U.S. relationship to have a larger impact on the future shape of the Australian Defense Force (ADF). But for defense policymakers in New Zealand, the same formula doesn’t apply. That’s not to deny that Wellington’s defense relationship with the United States has come on in leaps and bounds over the last couple of years. There are even hints of an informal Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) triangle coming onto the scene—the Smith/Coleman communiqué indicated that New Zealand forces will observe the 2013 US–Australian Talisman Sabre exercise “with the aim of full participation from 2015 onwards.”

But it would take a minor revolution for New Zealand’s burgeoning relationship with the U.S. to be priority over Wellington’s defense links with Australia. Additionally, though, the Australia–NZ relationship matters a whole lot on one side of the Tasman and rather less on the other (militarily, as well as economically and politically), and so New Zealand has work to do to stay on Canberra’s radar screen. That could get more difficult as Australia establishes stronger ties with other significant Asian powers, including Indonesia, and possibly Japan and India, as the region’s geopolitical shifts become more evident. And as Australia looks more to its north and west, and especially out to the Indian Ocean, it might not see much of New Zealand.

New Zealand might want several things from the defense relationship with Australia. The first is consistency: working with an ADF which has a clear and sensible but modest trajectory is far preferable to the highs and lows which could come if Australia is zigzagging between defense ambition and despair. This means that Canberra needs to take a reality check. The growing gap between Australia’s defense ambitions and defense resources can only be reconciled by an unlikely injection of cash or a smaller view of what Australia can achieve. The latter would suit New Zealand because it would make it more likely that Wellington and Australia work together in modest sized teams and with lighter maritime capabilities in the South Pacific, in terms of logistics and patrol ships rather than submarines and air-warfare destroyers. And Australia, by comparison, which gets too carried away with what it can offer for the Indo-Pacific moment, only to find its gaze has exceeded its abilities, might be a less settled partner.

The second issue is for Canberra to give more emphasis to the self-reliance of the ADF, and less to its potential roles in maritime coalitions in more challenging circumstances well into the northern Asia–Pacific. The ADF being able to deploy independently, including in its immediate neighborhood, will work for New Zealand. It will generate capabilities that Wellington can hitch onto, and it will require future Australian governments to think more about the wider security context in which defense forces operate.

The third is for Australia to take advantage of the things that New Zealand offers while being realistic about what its neighbor to the southeast can provide. Gone are the days when there was a fully combined and integrated Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) defense force—that’s simply not going to be resurrected in today’s world even if it does have historical underpinnings. But the cross-crewing of Australian and New Zealand naval vessels, and the availability of New Zealand’s multi-role vessel for trans-Tasman purposes when Australian platforms are out of service, are signs of what the start of an Australasian capability can look like.

The fourth is for Canberra to be aware of the consequences its positioning on the U.S.–China balance in Asia can have on its smaller neighbor. Resisting the temptation to get too carried away with the U.S. rebalancing (something that Ministers in New Zealand should resist as well) will allow more free space for the trans-Tasman relationship to flourish. If Australia wants to take a less accommodating view of China than New Zealand, that’s certainly its prerogative. However, Canberra shouldn’t expect Wellington to take the same approach. They’re close partners, but like all other countries, sometimes their priorities and interests differ.

That difference works the other way too. New Zealand likes having an Australia that is big enough to look after its own security because that improves Wellington’s security too.  At the same time, New Zealand will want its bigger neighbor to have a reflexive habit of consulting with smaller partners as well as larger ones. No one expects ANZAC consultations to rival AUSMIN, and policymakers in New Zealand wouldn’t want the focused nature of trans-Tasman consultations to be swallowed up in a return to trilateral formalism. That would be a backward step. It would be better for some slight discomfort to remain in Canberra that New Zealand has been welcomed back by the United States without having to do the hard yards than for New Zealand to disappear off Australia’s screen. Above all, New Zealand wants to be noticed.

Robert Ayson is director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Image courtesy of the Department of Defence. This piece originally appeared on the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's The Strategist blog.