Opinion: It’s about time. The Hipkins administration has released a Defence Policy Strategy Statement, a Future Forces Design document, and New Zealand’s first National Security Strategy.

Coinciding with the release, Defence Minister Andrew Little tweeted that “the domestic and international security environment has changed and our preparedness needs to change too”.

For many observers of Indo-Pacific security, this is a welcome recognition that New Zealand requires increased investment in capabilities to address a more challenging international reality.

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The administration’s measured and sober approach has generated a critical response from former Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Clark argues on Twitter that New Zealand “is abandoning its capacity to think for itself & instead is cutting & pasting from 5 Eyes’ partners”, adding that the “drumbeat from officials has been consistent on this for some time”.

Her claim is that “there appears to be an orchestrated campaign on joining the so-called ‘Pillar 2’ of #AUKUS which is a new defence grouping in the Anglosphere with hard power based on nuclear weapons. #NZ removed itself from such a vice when it adopted its #nuclear free policy”.

And according to Clark, “another reason why #AUKUS Pillar 2 is problematic is that” it may contribute to New Zealand being seen as an Anglo-Antipodean outpost.

A few observations are in order.

First, Clark appreciates that national security is too serious a topic to be settled on Twitter. She says “NZ needs a full public debate on this & not an officialdom-driven realignment”. Agreed. The Hipkins administration’s foreign and defence policy deserves a critical evaluation, far removed from the instant response world of cyberspace. This is to allow the spectrum of views on national security to be systematically laid out and critiqued in a rigorous way, and when the dust has settled, to be adopted as national policy.

Second, in a speech on Friday introducing the three documents, Defence Minister Little highlighted that “in 2023 we do not live in a benign strategic environment”. Do the critics disagree? If so, how exactly do they disagree? What are their alternative strategic and tactical principles and policy options for the Government? Do they stand up to intellectual, political, economic, and diplomatic scrutiny? A full debate will allow us to determine the answer to these questions.

These documents highlight the fundamental and non-negotiable interests we share with the US and like-minded countries in defending the current international order from a variety of challenges, including that posed by some aspects of China’s foreign policies

Third, the importance of a debate is reflected in the academic references Clark makes to to support her argument. Difference of opinion is par for the course in academia, and the academics cited by Clark have a particular interpretation of both regional security and New Zealand’s policy response to it. Suffice to say that these views do not reflect the spectrum of informed opinion on these matters. Take New Zealand’s Aukus policy as an example. This topic has been robustly discussed in various op-eds in our print and online media. Yet curiously, on Aukus, only one academic is cited by Clark. Perhaps it is no surprise, but it is an academic she agrees with. What about the alternative views? Why are the concerns raised by these analysts unconvincing? This is where Twitter is a less-than-ideal platform for attaining illumination.

Fourth, Clark is not neutral on New Zealand’s defence and security policy. Far from it. She was a high-profile and influential Labour Party politician who wisely disagreed with the US on the Iraq War and successfully clinched New Zealand’s 2008 Free Trade Agreement with China. But times have changed. 2023 is not 2008. The Government’s recent defence and foreign policy documents are responding to a very different strategic context. These documents highlight the fundamental interests that we share with Australia, Japan, the UK, the US, and like-minded countries in defending the current international order from a variety of challenges, including that posed by some aspects of China’s foreign policies. In assessing Clark’s public commentary on New Zealand foreign policy, this point needs to be fully appreciated.

Fifth, for any defence and national security strategy to last the distance, there will have to be buy-in from a spectrum of political opinion. At a minimum, the Labour and National parties will need to broadly see eye to eye. And we haven’t heard from National on these topics.

Indeed, it’s not unreasonable to go further and seek a more broad-based coalition. This is particularly the case if the international strategic environment is as challenging as the recently released reports contend. At the risk of stating the obvious, it is counterproductive to adopt a policy that has not been stress tested by internal debate, let alone the inevitable test of international events.

A joint statement released by Chris Hipkins and Andrew Little on Friday says “we are investing to modernise our capabilities across land, sea and air, and are strengthening our relationships with friends and partners in the Pacific and beyond. As we work to safeguard our national security we will be proportionate, predictable and avoid unnecessary securitisation”. Clearly, some disagree with that characterisation.

It’s about time New Zealand had a serious discussion on national security.

Nicholas Khoo is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Otago. He specialises in great power politics, security studies, Chinese foreign policy, and Asian security.

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