Nato’s growing ties with New Zealand are not about building a military presence in the Indo-Pacific but handling an increasingly unpredictable global environment, a senior alliance official has said during a visit to the country.

Dr Benedetta Berti, Nato’s policy planning chief, has also criticised China’s coercive behaviour and repetition of false narratives over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying its growing ambition poses a “systemic challenge” to the wider world.

Berti’s visit to New Zealand comes as the Government’s relationship with Nato grows closer than ever.

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Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta visited Brussels last week for a meeting of Nato foreign ministers and the alliance’s Indo-Pacific partners to discuss the war in Ukraine and other global security concerns.

After the meeting, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg confirmed he had invited Prime Minister Chris Hipkins – along with the leaders of Australia, Japan and South Korea – to attend the Nato summit in Lithuania in July.

In an interview with Newsroom, Berti said the Nato-New Zealand relationship was in strong health, dating back over two decades but growing in recent years as the transatlantic alliance focused more closely on its like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific. 

“The world is more complex, more contested, more competitive, less predictable,” she said. “And it’s also more interconnected when it comes to threats and challenges, so that brings our regions closer together.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta meets Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels. Photo: Nato

Berti said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had shattered peace in Europe, but also had broader implications for the rules-based international order that New Zealand and other nations relied on.

Berti said there appeared little prospect of a short-term end to the conflict, with Ukrainian bravery and resolve surprising some analysts but doing little to alter the strategic balance.

Nato would continue to provide non-lethal aid such as food, fuel and medical supplies, while working on longer term efforts to help the country transition away from Soviet legacy equipment to an army capable of working with the alliance.

“We must continue to support Ukraine so that it can prevail as a sovereign independent country today, but we also need to think through to the future and how to ensure that once the war is over, the Kremlin is not able to erode … and chip away at the European security order again and continue to threaten Ukraine.”

“We’re looking at all [China’s] activities, from military modernisation with relatively little transparency to the coercive behaviour in the neighbourhood, to the very deliberate investment into critical infrastructure often to create dependencies.”
– Dr Benedetta Berti, Nato

Nato members had “zero interest” in becoming directly involved in a war with Russia, and would provide Ukraine with what support it could while trying to prevent all-out war.

Though some have credited the war for restoring Nato’s sense of purpose, Berti said the real wake-up call had come from Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, which forced the alliance to focus more intently on the collective defence of Europe and increase defence spending after a long period of peace.

“Had that military adaptation and the political adaptation that came with it not been in place, there is no way we would have been able to react as we did after Russia began its war of aggression,” she said.

Nato has also begun to focus more closely on China, with the country referenced for the first time in the latest edition of its Strategic Concept, a document updated roughly once a decade to reflect the major security challenges facing the alliance.

Berti said it was impossible to ignore China’s rise when thinking about the shifting balance of power in the world. Though Nato did not view the country as a military adversary, its self-stated ambition did pose “a systemic challenge” that needed to be addressed.

“We’re looking at all the activities, from military modernisation with relatively little transparency to the coercive behaviour in the neighbourhood, to the very deliberate investment into critical infrastructure often to create dependencies.”

Nato policy planning chief Dr Benedetta Berti says it is up to New Zealand to decide how and where it wants to work more closely with the alliance. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

While French President Emmanuel Macron has attracted some criticism for saying Europe should not become “America’s followers” in relation to China, Berti said the challenge posed by Beijing was “one of the strongest arguments I have for transatlantic unity”.

“That’s a challenge that’s simply too big for Europe or the United States to tackle alone … the shared values, the shared interest, the shared economy, it’s clear where they stand.”

Though she would welcome any Chinese role in finding a peaceful end to the war in Ukraine, she was not confident that would happen, citing Xi Jinping’s no-limits partnership with Vladimir Putin as well as Chinese amplification of Russian misinformation.

Nato would continue to pay much more attention to the Indo-Pacific, not with any ambition of building a military presence there but to better understand regional developments and uphold the international order.

Berti mentioned cyber defence and the security impacts of climate change as areas where Nato and New Zealand could work more closely together, but said it was ultimately up to the latter to share its own priorities.

At his weekly post-Cabinet press conference on Tuesday, Hipkins confirmed he had been invited to the Nato summit but was unsure whether he would attend, citing the need to balance international travel with domestic demands in an election year.

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

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