A top US military commander has sent a warning about China’s violations of national sovereignty in the region during a visit to New Zealand, saying strong regional alliances are a “great counterweight” to the country’s actions.

General Charles Flynn has also invited Kiwi soldiers to participate in multinational force training in Hawaii, as part of efforts to train together more frequently after Covid disruptions.

Flynn, commander of the United States Army Pacific unit within the American military’s wider Indo-Pacific Command, spoke exclusively to Newsroom while in Aotearoa last week.

The general said he had come to New Zealand to meet Army chief Major General John Boswell and Defence Force chief Air Marshal Kevin Short in between visits to Indonesia and Australia, as part of US efforts to reconnect in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“As the military begins to expand a little bit out into the region from being confined, if you will, from Covid, we’re trying to tighten our coordination and make sure that we find opportunities to train, exercise, and be together on so many things that we have in our past and will continue into the future.”

Asked about the role of the US Army in the Pacific given the large swathes of ocean in the region, Flynn said it could help in the aftermath of climate-induced disasters – 80 percent of which occurred across the Indo-Pacific.

“Those natural disasters result in the loss of life, but also they result in the damage to infrastructure like ports and airfields and roads and bridges and power grids and hospitals and clinics, and schools and things that a population needs to get back on its feet…

“The Army has a scale and size like no other component has, and we’ve long been a contributing member with small teams across Oceania and the Pacific Islands.”

“I think that…some of [China’s] activities maybe violate national sovereignty, and so I think some of those activities or that behaviour is not always helpful in the region.”
– General Charles Flynn

Almost all of the army’s exercises, including multinational events, now included humanitarian assistance and disaster relief elements, he said.

Flynn has previously criticised China’s “destabilising and corrosive behaviour” regarding a build-up of infrastructure on the Himalayan border with India, and told Newsroom the country’s actions across the broader Indo-Pacific were creating instability.

“I think that…some of their activities maybe violate national sovereignty, and so I think some of those activities or that behaviour is not always helpful in the region.

“The great counterweight that we have against some of that is the network of allies and partners working together.”

He cited Garuda Shield, a long-standing bilateral exercise between American and Indonesian troops which this year expanded to include 14 nations, as “ a visible expression and an illustration of the desire of countries to actually work together to create good outcomes”.

Flynn declined to comment on the aftermath of US politician Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and broader instability in the Taiwan Strait, referring instead to statements from the White House and the National Security Council.

But he reiterated comments made in Australia earlier this year about the Pacific theatre army “preparing for long war”, saying the remarks were made in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Despite any wishful thinking, wars tend to be long, unpredictable, violent and human, which is what’s actually going on in Europe right now…

“For those that believe that they’re going to be short and sharp and over, I think what has happened in Europe is a reminder that they’re not always just short and sharp.”

There has been a flurry of American officials visiting New Zealand, with US deputy secretary of state Wendy Matthews meeting Jacinda Ardern on Tuesday. Photo: Ben McKay

The American contribution to Ukraine’s defence was not having an impact on its work in the Indo-Pacific, with the US Army having “plenty of capacity and capability”.

The general’s visit has come as part of a flurry of American officials travelling to New Zealand: US Indo-Pacific commander Admiral John Aquilino came to Wellington at the start of the month, while US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman on Tuesday met Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and signed bilateral agreements related to space and emergency management.

Flynn said the US Army had a long tradition of working with New Zealand which he wanted to see continue.

He had invited New Zealand forces to train with American counterparts at the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center in Hawaii, and wanted more broadly to “reconnect” some of the exercises and events which took place before the pandemic.

Flynn dismissed the idea a mismatch in capabilities between the US and New Zealand defence forces was a problem, noting he had as commander of the 25th Infantry Division in 2014 asked for New Zealand to provide a deputy commander.

“That is one of a number of examples that I can highlight over time that, though it be small, it loomed large in the total contributions of the New Zealand military, when they provide such talented and capable senior officers to be basically in the command group of a US division.”

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

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