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On Defence’s Desire To Join The ”Lets Confront China” Club

China has been put on notice by us. According to the New Zealand Defence Assessment 2021 report released on Wednesday, and set out in bold type: “The establishment of a military base or dual-use facility in the Pacific by a state that does not share New Zealand’s values and security interests” would be regarded by us “as [being] among the most threatening potential developments“ in the region.

Wow, that’s telling them. And why pray, is New Zealand portraying any action along those lines by our main trading partner in such Doomsday terms? Allegedly, this kind of development would fundamentally alter the strategic balance of the region. In addition to crowding out access to limited Pacific infrastructure, such a military facility would enable a greater quantity, quality and diversity of military capabilities to operate in and through the region, as well as potentially supporting ‘grey zone’ and other activities counter to New Zealand’s interests.

Let's take a deep breath and consider the double standard involved in treating such a theoretical military or civilian/military base (if one ever did get built by China in partnership with say, Vanuatu or Papua New Guinea) as an intolerable game-changer. After all, we treat the existing huge US military bases in the Pacific (Guam, Okinawa and elsewhere) as being merely business as usual. For the record, Okinawa is closer to Shanghai than Auckland is to Queenstown, the US military bases in South Korea are closer to Beijing than Auckland is to Christchurch, and Guam is only slightly further away from Shanghai than Suva is to Wellington. So… If adjacent military bases are the measure of threat, it is pretty clear who has more right to be feeling a bit threatened.

Unfortunately, the Defence Assessment 2021 report is content to live in denial on such matters. Like it or not, the emergence of China as an economic, diplomatic and military global superpower is a reality, and Beijing now has legitimate interests of its own in all parts of the world. Regardless, the report depicts China’s attempts to modernise the People's Liberation Army (and its blue water Navy) as evidence of its allegedly expansionist ambitions. To be clear: I’m not complacent about the rise of Chinese nationalism, or about China’s toxic domestic politics towards the Uighurs and others.

But a mindset that says that it is necessary and desirable to throw all of the military force at our disposal into containing China because – allegedly - there can always be only one global superpower (the United States) has a legitimate presence in the Pacific region is IMO, dangerous to planetary life, let alone to New Zealand’s security interests.

Team Tactics

The question is whether linking our modest military forces more closely to US/Australian strategies and mindsets – which are busily at work on devising strategies of containment and carrying out force projection exercises right on China’s doorstep - is the best, or only response that’s open to us. Personally, I find it problematic that Defence Assessment 2021 sees “China’s rise” and its competition with the United States as posing an inherent security threat to the region, and to New Zealand’s national interests.

But with that in mind, the report makes a case for shifting our stance from one of risk assessment into a more “pro-active” stance in concert with our traditional allies. It aligns us approvingly, with Australia’s confrontational stance towards China. Here’s Canberra’s approach, in a nutshell:

55. Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update sets out a strategic environment with greater geopolitical competition and higher potential for military miscalculation, and states that the prospect of high-intensity conflict in the region, while still unlikely, is now less remote. It concludes Australia can no longer rely on a ten-year strategic warning period for a major conventional attack on its territory.

56. Australia’s response, including as set out in its 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan, has been to reinforce its emphasis on its alliance with the United States as its strategic bedrock, re-prioritise its security efforts on proactively protecting its interests within its immediate region6 (“Shape, Deter, Respond”), and signal investments in a range of high-end military capabilities.

On a Mini-Me scale, this is exactly what Defence Assessment 2021 advocates for New Zealand as well. Alarmingly, the Defence Assessment also says that the intensity of this military contest with China is accelerating, and admits that this is also increasing the likelihood of an accidental conflict :

"100. 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.”

Alongside admitting that its recommended course of action is already increasing the risk of an accidental (or intentional) war between China and US-led coalition of forces in the Pacific, the report suggests that a lot of the lower level competition will actually be played out in a so-called “grey zone” This is portrayed as a “space between peace and war that spans co-operation, competition, confrontation and conflict.” Countries carrying out grey zone operations are said to be seeking “to create or exploit uncertainty, which can shape others' perceptions around risks of escalation. including thresholds for armed conflict." A new Cold War, but the same as the old one – only with the Soviets swapped over for China.

Uniform Dependency

By reading this new Defence Assessment in tandem with the 2018 Strategic Defence Policy Statement, one can see the sizable shift in New Zealand’s defence’s posture over the past decade or so. Both documents tie us back into a subordinate role alongside our bigger traditional allies and into force projection activities devised and led by them. Among other things, it means that the defence posture being promoted by the centre-left government of Jacinda Ardern has far less scope for independence than the one advocated by the Helen Clark government. Starting with the Defence Beyond 2000 paper, Clark put the UN (not the US, UK or Australia) at the centre of the path that she thought New Zealand should follow. Now, the UN and our role in its peace-keeping efforts seem more like an afterthought. Starting with the “Pacific Re-Set” New Zealand has jumped back into the US-led club.

Just as this new report does, the 2018 Defence Policy Statement rang the alarm bells about the alleged threat posed by China in its maritime Silk Road push into the Indian Ocean, its militarization of the South China Sea, and its diplomatic outreach to the Pacific islands. Since then, the Ardern government has pursued co-operation in the “Indo-Pacific” region with the four partners - India, Japan, the United States and Australia -that comprise the so-called “Quad” diplomatic grouping. The Quad’s founding aim is to combat the rise of China. Even our belated adoption of the ideologically loaded term “Indo-Pacific” ( we used to say “ Asia Pacific”) reflects the change in our defence posture. “Indo-Pacific” is a term championed by Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and US vice-president Dick Cheney back in the mid 2000s. It joins Japan to India in creating a geographic, diplomatic and military arc of containment, all around China, and including the maritime trade routes that have become the rationale for force projection.

As recently as 18 October 2018, Ben King, New Zealand’s Deputy Secretary for Americas and Asia was saying that “the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ may not resonate in New Zealand yet.” The Ardern government is now right at home with it. Our local defence academics have been urging her on.

Where To Now?

Despite trumpeting the shift to a more “pro-active” Defence posture, the Defence Assessment 2021 document makes no attempt to say what – in practice – being “pro-active “would involve, or what fresh risks it might generate. (That is, besides raising the risk of everyone blundering by accident into World War Three). Being pro-active seems to mean being increasingly ready, willing and able to act according to whatever the US and Australia deem necessary in the Pacific, in the South China Sea, and beyond.

Along the way, this will apparently require us to continue to buy the multi-billion dollar military hardware required to keep us up with the Joneses. At para 122, the report suggests that Defence will need more of that expensive “ high end” military hardware even to do its usual line of work in the Pacific. Defending the Cooks in future, it seems, will require Defence to be kitted out with the very best top shelf gear available.

Hmmm. But should this future investment be in, say, cyber-technology rather than say, new frigates in which to tootle around the Pacific? Defence Assessment 2021 leaves us none the wiser. Curiously, the report also doesn’t mention -let alone weigh - the implications of treating our main trading partner as the prime military threat we face within our self -declared Pacific “neighbourhood.” As always, Defence and Trade are confined in separate silos. However, the report claims in passing (para 59) that “many states are finding their space to navigate a middle path to be narrowing.” Hey, you can bet that space would be shrinking at warp speed, if the Defence boffins had anything to do with it.

Elsewhere, the report is coy about the implications of what it is recommending. Here’s one glaring example:

Paras 113-114. The principal change we recommend is for New Zealand’s defence policy to shift from a risk management-centred approach to one based on a deliberate and pro-active strategy, with more explicit – and explicitly prioritised – policy objectives….Changing approaches in this way will require more deliberate and rigorous prioritisation of effort, and some hard choices and trade-offs.

And what pray tell, are these hard choices, and between what? What potential “trade-offs” is Defence talking about here? Sure, one could excuse this lack of substance by saying that such matters are going to be left to some subsequent White Paper. But if this report is meant to be a discussion document, shouldn’t it identify what matters it thinks are on the table for discussion?

The only hint of what Defence may have in mind can be found at para 145:

As a small state in demographic and economic terms, however, New Zealand faces an enduring tension between its need to protect and promote its expansive security interests, and the resources it is willing to commit to doing so. As military inflation and technological change gather pace, New Zealand will be increasingly challenged to maintain military capabilities that are effective, interoperable with key security partners, and can provide credible contributions to collective security operations.

You bet. But will the New Zealand public be “challenged” beforehand or will it simply be presented with a fait accompli? Covid is putting pressure on government spending. Ultimately, the entire Defence Assessment 2021 report should perhaps be read as a plaintive plea for relevance, and as a PR exercise intended to justify the extraordinarily expensive hardware and running costs in Defence, in order to keep the military visible amid all of the government’s other spending priorities.

Does Defence deserve to be treated as a priority? Consistent with earlier reports, assessments and White Papers over the past decade, Defence Assessment 2021 does not believe New Zealand faces an existential threat. Like those earlier documents , the new report concedes that that there is no credible military threat to New Zealand from China, or from anyone else:

80. Despite the substantial negative strategic trends set out in Part 2, we consider New Zealand does not yet face a direct military threat to the territory of New Zealand itself, and judge that any such threat would almost certainly only emerge in the context of a major war.

And again at paragraph 126:

As previously stated in this Assessment, we consider New Zealand does not yet face a direct military threat to the territory of New Zealand itself, and judge that any such threat would only emerge in the context of a major war. New Zealand would very likely require substantial assistance from partner nations to deter or defeat any such military threat (the last such threat was during World War Two). The independent territorial defence of New Zealand should not therefore be the principal driver for New Zealand’s defence policy

Good to know. The “yet” is the only novel addition to other recent Defence reports that reached the same benign conclusion. So we’re not talking about the physical defence of the homeland. ( Cyber defences play a curiously minor role within Defence Assessment 202) So…basically, Defence is advocating for our military to have a higher profile in force projection activities initiated by other nations, while claiming this would be a helpful tool in our diplomatic kitbag in the Pacific. (The diplomats at MFAT may diplomatically beg to differ about that.)

The real question is whether what the new report recommends will (a) be more likely to prevent that ‘major war' in the Pacific or (b) be more likely to cause it, either intentionally or by accident. I’m betting on the latter. As the cartoon character Pogo once said, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

Footnote One: The Defence Assessment does (briefly) turn its attention to the far more immediate threat that climate change poses to Pacific states:

In some cases, including in the Pacific, the direct impacts of climate change will be sufficiently serious – in scope and/or scale – to threaten the overall security or viability of countries. The 2018 Boe Declaration by the leaders of Pacific Islands Forum countries and territories, including New Zealand, reaffirmed that climate change presents “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”.

That being the case, one might have hoped the report would have some “pro-active “ policy initiatives and “hard” options and trade-offs in mind to counter the’ greatest threat” facing Pacific nations. No such luck. The report contents itself with these Stage One, PolSci observations:

The global shift away from the use of coal, oil and natural gas for energy production will affect the geo-economic importance – and potentially the economic security – of petroleum-rich countries and regions, particularly the Middle East, and alter the relative significance of some trade routes. For New Zealand, the transition to carbon neutrality has the potential to shift the country’s energy dependence to other, including domestic, sources, with corresponding strategic impacts.

Footnote Two: For some background on that “Indo-Pacific” terminology shift Last year, David Scott, an analyst with the NATO Defence College Foundation at the EastWest Center in Hawaii, wrote a useful brief article about how and when New Zealand stopped referring to the “Asia-Pacific” region in its diplomatic utterings, and fell in line with the “Indo-Pacific” term favoured by our traditional military allies… As mentioned above, the term “ Indo-Pacific” posits an arc stretching from Japan to India including the maritime straits areas in between, which are allegedly under threat from China, or someday might be, or something.

Amusingly Defence Assessment 2021concedes that any climate change-driven shift away from dependence on fossil fuel deposits located in the Middle East will “alter the relative significance of some trade routes.” Hey, that sounds like a shift to carbon neutrality and renewable energy could reduce the strategic importance of the very same maritime straits that are the potential flash points for conflict in the Indo-Pacific in general and in the South China Sea in particular. Peace through renewables in our time, people.

The Other Mayfield

Percy Mayfield (1920- 1984) was no relation to Curtis Mayfield. He’s probably best known as the author of the Ray Charles classic “ Hit The Road Jack” although his own rendition is significantly less bouncy and assertive. Reportedly, Mayfield once explained his approach to song-writing with this bizarre analogy: “I can picture me trying to get in my door and ain’t got my key and there ain’t nobody in the house.” His work had all to do with impulse and suggestion, with motives and conclusions left unclear. “My Error” is a typically deceptive Mayfield track. It starts out as a standard “ I knew she was doing me wrong” blues lament, before sliding over into a disturbing appetite for revenge:

The same chilling atmosphere of self-absorption verging on violence hangs over “ Rivers Invitation” as well. On one hand, he is promising eternal devotion to his departed beloved, but (apparently) he also a murder/suicide pact in mind if he ever manages to find her again. He spoke to the river and the river spoke back to him, and there’s no happy ending waiting among these tides.

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