Defence ministry says competition between US and China a ‘major driver’ of increased insecurity in the Pacific region
New Zealand faces “a substantially more challenging and complex strategic environment”, in large part because of China’s rise and “increasingly strong nationalist narrative”, according to a stark report released by the country’s defence ministry.
The remarkably explicit warning on Wednesday included a detailed discussion of China’s military modernisation and emphasised the importance of New Zealand’s deep security relationships with Anglosphere countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.
“It paints a pretty sobering picture of changes in New Zealand’s strategic environment,” says Professor David Capie, director of Victoria University of Wellington’s Centre for Strategic Studies. “It argues the South Pacific is no longer a benign backwater, but rather that some of the challenges we’ve seen playing out in the wider Indo-Pacific are now coming closer to home.”
The report comes as New Zealand plunges into a fraught debate over how to manage strategic competition between America and China in its Pacific backyard. Many officials and observers in Wellington have taken a more hawkish view of China in recent years and pushed for a closer security partnership with America.
The ministry’s report seems designed to influence that discussion. Some will see it as pushback to the foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, who earlier this year expressed discomfort with expanding the remit of the Anglosphere’s Five Eyes partnership beyond intelligence-gathering.
The report noted that “the defence aspect [of Five Eyes] is as long-standing and as fundamental as the intelligence aspect”. It strongly endorsed New Zealand’s continued involvement in the partnership, saying the country “derives enormous benefit from this partnership, including in terms of access to defence capabilities, information technologies and military developments that would otherwise be unachievable”.
Strategic competition between America and China was singled out as a “major driver” of increased insecurity. The ministry characterised the Indo-Pacific as the “central global theatre for strategic competition”. It warned an external power – almost certainly China – could establish a military base or use paramilitary forces in the region, and implicitly cautioned American policymakers that delivery on President Joe Biden’s “renewed commitment” to the Indo-Pacific “will be important in determining the future for this region”.
Another driver of the increased security threats which New Zealand now faces, per the ministry, is intensified climate change. It noted that climate change’s impacts are already present and include extreme fires, intense cyclones and prolonged droughts. These will drive greater social and political instability. “More frequent disasters means reduced recovery time between events, and more intense disasters means more damage from which to recover.”
“After decades of deployments to Afghanistan and the Middle East, [the report] makes clear that the South Pacific is where New Zealand needs to focus its primary defence efforts in the future,” says Capie. It remains to be seen whether that will prompt a change in New Zealand foreign policy going forward. “The government has set out a very worrying picture of New Zealand’s strategic environment, but is it willing to spend any more or do anything different from what it has in the past?”