New Zealand’s latest defence assessment paints a gloomy picture of the geostrategic environment, Sam Sachdeva writes

Analysis: One glance at the cover of the Government’s Defence Assessment 2021 tells you plenty about the tone of analysis inside.

Dark, churning waves beneath a gunmetal-grey sky would hardly be the illustration of choice for a cheery view of the global environment, even if the Ministry of Defence reached for a glass-half-full subtitle (‘He moana pukepuke e ekengia e te waka/A rough sea can still be navigated’).

Indeed, the document spells out “a much more challenging strategic environment than New Zealand has confronted for decades”, with the Covid-19 pandemic intensifying rather than displacing pre-existing competition among Great Powers and other states.

“New Zealand, together with its defence and security partners, faces a future strategic environment that will be much worse than that of the recent past.”

Speaking at the launch of the defence assessment, Defence Secretary Andrew Bridgman was similarly blunt about the state of play, telling reporters: “The trajectory is negative. There’s nothing that we see in the environment at the moment that would say that it’s going to get any more positive.”

As with the Strategic Defence Policy Statement issued in 2018, one state actor in particular receives a disproportionate share of the credit (or blame), with China’s rise described as “the major driver of geopolitical change”.

“China’s external objectives have expanded over time, as has the expression of China’s ‘core interests’. This has been accompanied by an increasingly strong nationalist narrative,” the document says.

“Ultimately, Beijing is seeking to reshape the international system to make it more compatible with China’s governance model and national values, and with China recognised as a global leader.”

Growth of the ‘grey zone’

Specific mention is made of its militarisation of ‘features’ in the South China Sea, as well as the country’s involvement in major cyber attacks.

Such candour from New Zealand is less novel now than it was three years ago, when the defence policy statement drew a rebuke from Chinese officials, but Beijing’s response will still be awaited with some interest and trepidation, given its tendencies towards aggressive “wolf warrior diplomacy”.

In one respect, the latest defence assessment could be said to go further than its predecessor. While the 2018 statement referred to New Zealand’s “strong and resilient relationship with China”, and growing defence and security cooperation, the Asian superpower is now conspicuously absent from a similar section on international relationships.

Bridgman attributed that to practical rather than strategic factors, with limited bilateral defence engagements in recent years due to the pandemic – but given the two countries signed a defence cooperation agreement in 2019, it is interesting, perhaps telling, that China did not rank a mention on the list of partners.

Russia is noted as acting “in a range of ways that challenge the international rules-based system”, a remark that has added resonance as concerns grow over a potential invasion of Ukraine.

Both China and Russia have been known to engage in what the defence assessment calls the ‘grey zone’, “the space between peace and war that spans cooperation, competition, confrontation and conflict”.

“These activities provide states with a level of plausible deniability, are not well addressed in international law, and hinder others’ abilities to react, including in space, cyber-space and the high seas.”

Defence Secretary Andrew Bridgman didn’t mince words in speaking about the negative trajectory of the geostrategic environment. File photo: Lynn Grieveson.

While the document concludes that New Zealand does not yet face a direct military threat to its territory, that comes with a significant caveat: “We do agree, however, with the judgement in Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update that the prospect of major armed conflict in the Indo-Pacific is less remote than it has been.”

“Even without strategic intent, the growing numbers and operational proximity of military assets from competing states, coupled with increasingly assertive actions and robust responses, raise the risks of tactical miscalculation leading to unintended conflict.”

Among the solutions identified by the Ministry of Defence is a move away from an approach based on risk management to a more deliberate and proactive strategy, better accounting for the less benign environment we find ourselves in.

That raises questions about whether the military has the capabilities and resources to do the job expected of it, and where exactly it might be expected to operate to protect New Zealand’s interests in the Indo-Pacific.

Any major funding boost for new hardware seems unlikely given the outlay in the Government’s last term and the absence of New Zealand First from power; Defence Minister Peeni Henare was noncommittal when asked what sort of budget would be provided if capability changes were needed.

But while the scope of the strategic concerns is broad, the Ministry of Defence has in fact recommended a further tightening of the military’s focus into the Pacific.

‘Hard choices and trade-offs’

That seems logical given what Bridgman described as New Zealand’s heightened constitutional and moral obligations in the immediate region, as well as jostling for influence on Pacific nations by a number of states.

The defence assessment cites “the establishment of a military base or dual-use facility…by a state that does not share New Zealand’s values and security interests” as one of the most threatening potential developments in the region – constant rumours have abounded about Chinese plans to develop military bases in the Pacific – while another fear is exploitation of fisheries and underseas oil and gas by military-backed actors.

That helps explain why the Ministry of Defence suggests Aotearoa’s military should expand its work in the Pacific beyond disaster response and fisheries patrols to less familiar areas like cyber operations, expanded combat training with Pacific partners, and “expanded maritime domain awareness, including patrols in concert with Pacific and other like-minded partners in an increasingly complex and congested strategic space”.

Bridgman was insistent a heightened focus on the Pacific would not stop New Zealand from contributing militarily “as a good international citizen” in farther-flung parts of the world.

But the document itself notes there will be “some hard choices and trade-offs” – and with further policy work to come, the Government may come under pressure to either back its vision with additional resources, or narrow its ambitions.

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

Leave a comment