The security of the world’s oceans is more important than at any point since World War II, the Government says – so what is its strategy to protect it, and what are the concerns about its aim?
“We’re surrounded – we’re surrounded by water, and an awful lot of it.”
Dan Eaton, the national security policy director for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, may have been stating the obvious. But as he noted, in many ways it had taken the Covid-19 pandemic to remind New Zealand of that basic fact, both for good (the low number of cases) and bad (sitting at the end of long supply chains).
Eaton was among the speakers at a maritime security symposium hosted by the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.
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In large part, the event was an opportunity to digest and analyse the Government’s Maritime Security Strategy, a relatively fresh piece of work designed to articulate how New Zealand should guard its maritime interests as well as those of the wider region.
New Zealand faces increasing pressures across its maritime domain, the strategy says, including an increase in seaborne drug trafficking, the effects of climate change, and “a more demanding geopolitical environment”.
“It is clear that our current approach, based largely on ad-hoc arrangements, is no longer appropriate or sustainable,” the document concludes of the need for a changed approach to maritime security and a need for multi-agency collaboration.
Eaton described the document as “an important example of our evolution towards a more strategic approach” in the national security sector, as well as “a sign that we’re heading in the right direction”.
But if this is the first time you’ve heard about its existence, that is little surprise.
“[Maritime] governance is now more important than at any time since 1942, when the Battle of Midway marked the beginning of the end of maritime conflict in the Pacific Theater.”
The strategy was quietly published on the Ministry of Transport’s website just four days before Christmas last year, and with no accompanying press release or publicity beyond two social media posts – an approach traditionally taken for news a government wishes to bury, rather than a cross-agency vision.
In a pre-recorded speech, Transport Minister Michael Wood (now the lead minister on maritime security) harked back to World War II, saying the modern geopolitical environment presented a threat to the “Pax Pacifica” which had formed since the cessation of maritime conflict in the Pacific.
“[Maritime] governance is now more important than at any time since 1942, when the Battle of Midway marked the beginning of the end of maritime conflict in the Pacific Theater…
“It is this stability that has helped New Zealand to flourish since 1942 – but the challenges are growing, and call for an adjustment in government policy, regulation and investment.”
The strategy is based on four key pillars: understanding the maritime domain, engaging with partners, preventing threats, and responding when necessary.
But as one questioner pointed out, the document is somewhat circular in points and lacking in specific measures of success, which Ministry of Transport chief executive Peter Mersi conceded was not entirely accidental.
“When it comes to the resources inside governments, all governments face really hard prioritisation decisions, so we haven’t made any assumptions about when the resources become available.
“In other words, we want to use whatever resource we have at a point in time to point in the direction we want to head, and as more resources become available and can be driven towards the direction of the strategy, that’s what will happen.”
There were other questions about the goals of the strategy.
Victoria University of Wellington strategic studies professor Robert Ayson said there appeared to be “a bit of deterrence on the cheap”, with the main threat against bad actors seeming to be regulatory enforcement rather than something more hard-edged.
“That’s not fighting talk, that’s ‘we will throw the book at you’ talk,” Ayson said, adding that much of any credible threat would rely on New Zealand’s international partners.
Former MFAT and DPMC head Simon Murdoch raised the question of whether the soft power approach which had served New Zealand well in the past was still the right fit, given the changing geopolitical environment which had driven the strategy’s creation.
“Generations of MFAT lawyers have headed off and negotiated these regional fisheries agreements and regional environmental agreements, that’s the rules based order that we’re all talking about, and it’s been formed by the ability of countries like us to exercise our soft power smarts and muscle.
“But maybe we’re coming into a period of time where soft power isn’t quite going to get us so far – and you need to think about that.”
“Pulling together interagency budgets, pulling together a strategic budget, is really difficult. I mean, there’ve been many attempts set out in the justice sector, the intelligence community and so on, and more often than not, in my experience, they failed.”
While an emphasis on New Zealand’s maritime estate was understandable, Murdoch said officials also needed to look further afield, to parts of the ocean where it did not exercise as much direct control.
“That periphery is what connects us to … maritime and continental East Asia, and that’s where all these merchant ships flow. Our national security … therefore has to be seen in a context, which includes that dimension and that periphery – it’s not immaterial to New Zealand what the Philippines have been coping with [in the South China Sea], for example, it matters.”
Murdoch also noted the strategy was “conditioned on a high degree of interagency cooperation”, which in his experience was not guaranteed to succeed.
“Pulling together interagency budgets, pulling together a strategic budget, is really difficult. I mean, there’ve been many attempts set out in the justice sector, the intelligence community and so on, and more often than not, in my experience, they failed…
“All I’m saying is don’t close your minds to the thought that even with the best will in the world, as this thing unfolds over the next 20 or 30 years, if it starts running into those problems … I suspect the answer is that we haven’t got the machinery of government right.”
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