With war in Ukraine and geopolitical jockeying for position elsewhere in the world, defence diplomacy is becoming more and more important – a state of affairs which has added extra weight to the return of a major Asia-Pacific summit.

The Shangri-La Dialogue, a meeting of defence ministers and military figures from the Indo-Pacific, will take place in Singapore this weekend (from June 10 to 12) for the first time since 2019, and the significance of its return isn’t lost on Defence Minister Peeni Henare as he prepares to attend for the first time.

“I understand that there’s quite a high attendance of ministers as well as senior officials, so this is hugely important. We’re obviously not ignorant to the fact that these are challenging strategic times internationally, and matters like the Ukraine, amongst other things, are really important, so I’m really keen and looking forward to it,” Henare tells Newsroom.

The summit will be just his second trip overseas as defence minister, following bilateral visits to Fiji and Australia in March.

He has faced criticism in the past for his absence in the defence arena, drawing unfavourable comparisons with his predecessor Ron Mark who was often front and centre during the last term.

Mark oversaw some of the most significant government defence investments in decades, as well as a number of speeches and policy papers such as the surprisingly frank strategic statement of 2018.

In contrast, Henare has seemed to recede into the background – but he insists defence is “definitely a number one priority” over his other portfolios such as Whānau Ora and associate health.

“I enjoy the role, I enjoy meeting our people because I’ve always said they’re our greatest asset. and…I’m more than comfortable discussing what matters to New Zealand with my counterparts, and certainly not backwards on that.”

His list of priorities for the event is unsurprising: at the top is engagement with the Pacific, at the fore in recent weeks with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s diplomatic tour of the region.

“What I’ve also been quite clear on when I’ve discussed [the Pacific] with my colleagues overseas is we can’t go in with this paternalistic view of, ‘We know what’s good for you so listen up’.”
– Peeni Henare

Henare announced the Pacific as one of the Government’s three defence priorities last December – “I will share a little laugh: there were a few people who went: ‘Oh, you’ve missed the point’, and well, I think we nailed it,” he says now – and is keen to have New Zealand’s talk of partnership flow through into pragmatic work on the ground.

“When I was in Fiji, they were really keen for more training exercises and more exchanges between their forces and our forces to make sure that they can continue to uphold their sovereignty, while also building on their partnership with us.”

Such exercises will not only benefit the Pacific, he says, but help to regenerate New Zealand’s force capability after the flow-on effects of the pandemic.

Whether New Zealand has taken the region for granted has been a matter of hot debate in the wake of Wang’s trip.

In March, Henare told Stuff he and others in New Zealand and Australia were “caught off-guard” by the China-Solomon Islands security agreement, but he dismisses the idea the Government has dropped the ball in the region.

“I will say that Covid has been a particular challenge, the ability to connect: we’ve done a good job in supporting their health through Covid-19, but we’ve just got to make sure that we continue to push those partnerships.

“What I’ve also been quite clear on when I’ve discussed [the Pacific] with my colleagues overseas is we can’t go in with this paternalistic view of, ‘We know what’s good for you so listen up’.”

At the 2019 Shangri-La event, Pacific Islands Forum head Dame Meg Taylor described climate change as “the single greatest threat to the security of the Pacific”, and the issue remains at the forefront with Henare taking part in a session on climate security and green defence.

Aside from the public sessions, a significant part of the dialogue is the bilateral meetings between defence ministers.

Keen to korero with China

While Henare’s schedule is still being confirmed, he is hopeful of meeting his Solomon Islands counterpart, new Australian defence minister Richard Marles, and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Chinese Defence Minister and PLA general Wei Fenghe is also attending, and any encounter could prove awkward given Beijing’s condemnation of the joint NZ-US statement resulting from Jacinda Ardern’s White House visit.

But while that document talked about tighter security ties and China was notably absent from a list of New Zealand’s key relationships in last year’s defence assessment, Henare “wouldn’t characterise it as taking the foot off one and applying the gas on the other”.

“I think our relationship with America has always been quite strong, and so I’m happy with where that’s at at the moment. If we look towards China, I know that at a UN officials level we’ve continued to engage with them.

“Of course, I’ll take the leadership from our Prime Minister and Minister Mahuta about that ongoing relationship, but I hope that at Shangri-La, we might get the opportunity to have a sit down and a bit of a korero.”

While the summit primarily focuses on Asia, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an unavoidable part of the event.

Some have called on New Zealand to provide more support to Ukraine, but Henare says the aid and other funding which has been provided to date has been highly appreciated.

While there has not yet been any significant shift in the kinds of requests coming from Ukraine and New Zealand’s defence partners, the potential duration of the conflict is set to be a hot topic of discussion.

“I suspect that some of our conversations will be, ‘What does the long haul look like if we’re in here come Christmas time or the end of the year?’”

“No doubt those conversations will be held over at the Shangri-La and as a Cabinet we’ll have to make some key decisions as we go forward.”

* Sam Sachdeva is attending the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this week thanks to a travel grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation. Follow Newsroom for all the major developments from the event.

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

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