New Zealand-U.S. Defense Relations: A Possible Return to the Alliance?

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New Zealand-U.S. Defense Relations: A Possible Return to the Alliance?

Bilateral defense relations are improving, and may get better still.

Chuck Hagel raised eyebrows among strategic observers at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue on June 1, when categorized the U.S. relationship with New Zealand alongside somewhat more complicated ties such as Vietnam and Myanmar. Sam Roggeveen at the Lowy Interpreter made note of this “snub” and Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy also mentioned it, while pointing out (correctly) that U.S.-New Zealand defense relations do have a rather convoluted history. Relations cooled significantly some decades ago over New Zealand’s legislative blanket ban on nuclear powered or nuclear weapons-capable naval vessels in 1985.

This difficult period is now seen as a relic. The best in bilateral defense relations may be yet to come.

May 19-21 saw several hundred delegates from across the United States and New Zealand gather in Washington for the bi-annual U.S.-New Zealand Pacific Partnership Forum. This medium, organized by the U.S.-NZ Council, has been instrumental in helping to normalize relations between the two countries. The forum was open to the public and on the record for the first time since its inception in 2006, and spanned the full extent of the relationship: business, trade, and security.

A plenary high-level security panel illustrated where the relationship now stands, and where it can go from here. Most conspicuously, a return to the alliance in the future was mooted as a possibility, but not universally endorsed by the panel. The broad consensus called for both sides to emphasize a broadening and deepening of the security partnership, which has been thawing since 2006. New Zealand’s Chief of Defense, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, contended that the U.S. needs a partner that can compete in the Pacific in the context of the rebalancing. Issues of cooperation and collaboration would mainly encompass human security and humanitarian issues: an area where New Zealand has long taken a leading regional role.

It was noteworthy to hear Jones’ emphasis on human security issues, rather than traditional security concerns. How this line of thinking plays out in the years ahead, bilaterally and multilaterally in the Pacific, will be a development to watch. It is an area where New Zealand can work effectively with the U.S. as well as with players like China. Speaking on New Zealand-Sino relations, the Chinese Ambassador to New Zealand Xu Jianguo said last year, “we can seek opportunities in defense exercises, disaster reduction and relief, and non-traditional security issues.” This plays well with Jones’ emphasis, particularly if a multilateral angle were to be taken on such issues incorporating American and Chinese cooperation.

Vikram Singh and Stanley Roth respectively raised how the current partnership model has a lot of value to Washington. Traditional defense ties are at a thirty-year high, but still not officially within ally status. With the Te Mana on its way to Guam, Foreign Minister Murray McCully said on May 26 that a reciprocal visit from the U.S. Coast Guard is “entirely in their [the United States’] hands.” Even so, this current partnership has value for Washington, as Wellington can engage with other rising or major powers in ways that the U.S. may not be able to. Jones’ and Xu’s weighting of non-traditional security as areas of cooperation is one example of this.

So given this newly warmed partnership, is a return to the alliance inevitable? Desirable even?

Randy Shriver labeled the current arrangements an alliance in “all but name”. But the nuclear ban will continue to prevent any definitive return for New Zealand to ANZUS. New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully made clear again in recent weeks that there will be no change in Wellington’s ban on nuclear powered or capable ships.

Still, many New Zealanders of age have not been shaped by the disputes of the 1980s. The Cold War is over, but the Indo-Pacific is rising. That rise is not guaranteed to be peaceful. It may be time for New Zealand to reconsider its position on nuclear powered (but not armed) ships as a middle-of-the-road compromise if a return to allied status is needed at some point. Equally, Washington could do worse than to reformulate its “no declaration” policy on nuclear-armed ships in making an exception for close partners or allies like New Zealand. Though such policy compromises are remote at best, the U.S. does need to find ways to work more closely and more cost effectively with its friends in an era of budget austerity. Finding the middle ground on the nuclear issue from a position of partnership could wield dividends in this regard.

Wellington and Washington should continue to engage at the margins on what can be done to get around the nuclear issue. It may be a relic, but it is not a buried relic. New Zealand and the United States may now be allies in all but name. But making it official once more should not be taken off the table in the years ahead.

Jack Georgieff is a visiting Thawley Scholar from the Lowy Institute with the office of the Japan Chair at CSIS.