The Government has laid out its views on the threats facing New Zealand in a new defence document with surprisingly few punches pulled. The strategy answers a number of questions about the main threats we face, but how we can afford the cost of addressing them is less clear, Sam Sachdeva writes.

Who would have thought such a small document could make such a big statement?

At a relatively slender 39 pages, the newly-released Strategic Defence Policy Statement packs a significant punch pound-for-pound in outlining the threats to New Zealand and the world.

It paints a bleak picture of “compounding challenges of a scope and magnitude not previously seen in our neighbourhood”.

Among those challenges is an “increasingly confident” China, with the document highlighting the Asian superpower’s economic rise and efforts to assert greater power on the world stage.

There is specific mention of China’s military expansion in disputed territory through the South China Sea, and failure to engage with an international tribunal – comments going much further than in the past.

China is not the only country singled out. The report also highlights Russia’s influence activities as an area of concern, including its meddling in the 2016 United States and United Kingdom elections – something Mark proclaimed was a simple matter of fact, which may come as a surprise to Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters.

Change of tack

The million-dollar question, which Mark was unable or unwilling to satisfactorily answer, is what exactly has triggered this change in approach from the Government.

After all, barely a week ago Peters discussed the South China Sea in terms of “claimants in the various territorial disputes”, rather than singling China out, during a foreign policy speech.

Before that, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the relationship with China was one of our four most important; in the policy statement, the country is mentioned only after ASEAN and the Republic of Korea in a list of our relationships.

Ardern and Peters have at points diverged on some aspects of foreign policy, but both had been clear that New Zealand would not publicly single out China or any country by name.

It seems that’s no longer the case – but why?

Our Five Eyes allies won’t care, as this will ease concerns about New Zealand’s status as a potential weak link in the intelligence-sharing alliance.

In any case, it seems the public statement already tallies with what our Western allies are hearing from New Zealand behind closed doors, according to some.

There’s a case to be made that the United States has got off lightly, given it also presents a threat to geopolitical stability.

While the document mentions uncertainty about the future international role of the US, Mark dismissed any suggestion the country was threatening the rules-based order under Donald Trump – a statement patently at odds with the president’s threats (in private and in public) to withdraw from the WTO or NATO.

How Beijing responds to Wellington will be fascinating to observe.

After all, a far more innocuous comment in 2016 from then-Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee about the South China Sea, albeit at a Chinese forum, led to a public rebuke from the country.

Cyber, space and climate change

The actions of specific nation-states are not the only issues of interest identified in the document.

There is discussion of growing nationalist and populist sentiment within Western democracies, echoing concerns expressed by Ardern and Trade Minister David Parker.

New Zealand’s cyber and space systems are raised as areas where more work is needed, with work underway on a national space policy and the document hinting we may need to develop offensive cyber capabilities.

A big question is exactly how all of this will be paid for.

A review of the last government’s $20 billion Defence Capability Plan will be completed by the end of the year, but Finance Minister Grant Robertson and others have already grumbled about National’s failure to budget for the big-ticket items needed.

That doesn’t bode well for Mark holding the line on that $20b figure, let alone expanding it any further to deal with growing challenges (although it seems near-certain he will have an early win with the Government signing off on the purchase of the P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft).

Coalition politics are a very real consideration, with the Greens and (to a lesser extent) Labour historically critical of spending on defence instead of priorities closer to home.

That may explain the heavy emphasis on security issues related to climate change and the Pacific, providing a framework which the two left-wing parties may find more agreeable.

But that in itself raises the question of how much New Zealand can do: focusing more heavily on the Pacific while maintaining deployments in the Middle East and elsewhere will stretch the NZDF.

Whether it is stretched to breaking point may depend on how successfully Mark can argue his corner in future.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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