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On Dancing With NATO On Defence

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has been keeping some serious company of late. He’s been signing a free trade deal with the EU, shooting off to Stockholm to thank Sweden for its help in getting the EU trade deal across the line, popping into the NATO summit in Lithuania, having a meeting with Ukraine President Vlodomyr Zelensky... All up, he’s been having a busy time of it, especially for someone vowing to resume a“laser-like focus” on the bread and butter issues back home, ASAP.

New Zealand also attended the NATO summit in Madrid last year. What does this deepening involvement with NATO mean for us? Isn’t NATO mainly a Cold War military club based in Europe, with Russia being its main item of business? Yes, and no. NATO still does see itself as the main bulwark against Russian imperial aggression in Europe, and it continues to be a vital conduit of arms and aid to Ukraine. Yet increasingly, the US is pulling all the threads of its various global and regional alliances together, to create a more unified front against Russia and China. To that end, Japan looms ever larger in NATO’s forward planning in our particular region.

Not only has Japan been a huge donor ($7.1 billion and counting) to Ukraine since the war began. It is also central to NATO’s strategic confrontation with China. Last month NATO announced plans to open a “liaison” office in Tokyo, and has dialled up (to eleven!) its areas of cooperation with Japan via the so-called Individually Tailored Partnership Program.

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Apparently, NATO now belongs everywhere. As Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi recently put it when asked about his country’s growing links with NATO, “It is not possible to speak about the security of Europe and the Indo-Pacific region separately.” NATO feels exactly the same way. In their joint statement in early 2023, NATO boss Jens Stoltenberg and Japanese PM Fumio Kishida reinforced the importance of a “staunch” NATO-Japanese partnership, which “will demonstrate its value under this severe and complex security environment.”

Right. So NATO is expanding its military influence into this part of the world, and everywhere else. That has direct implications for New Zealand. For one thing... In Lithuania, the NATO summit grappled with how to create a longer, more reliable timeline for the West’s military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine:

“...NATO member states commit to weapon deliveries to Ukraine over a longer period of time,” says Council on Foreign Relations fellow Liana Fix. “The idea is to make this long-term and more formalized. It could be something like three to five years, not just in the next three to five months.”

Fine. But that would cost tons of money, upfront. At the same time, the US has been pressuring NATO member states (and friendly NATO partners, such as New Zealand) to assume more of the financial burden involved in defending Ukraine– specifically, by lifting their annual spending on Defence to 2% of GDP.

The 2% problem

Uh oh. Currently New Zealand devotes 1.37% of GDP annually on defence and security. Since our GDP is currently sitting at about $398 billion, this equals circa $5.17 billion. Raising the figure to 2% would cost $7.96 billion. Does that promised “laser like focus” on bread and butter issues at home in any way equate to spending nearly $3 billion extra each year, on defending ourselves against the nebulous threat that is allegedly being posed by our main trading partner? So far, only the ACT Party (and a whole swag of arms-makers and arms dealers) thinks that this would be a good idea.

Not coincidentally though, Defence Minister Andrew Little has just brought forward to the end of this month the release of the next Defence Strategic Review of this country’s needs, threat perceptions, and military alliance options. It is not as if Labour has been skimping on Defence. As it did with the public health system, Labour inherited armed forces that had been severely run down by National. (National now decries the extent of public spending required to fix the messes it left behind.)

Over the last five years, Labour has spent about $4 billion (minimum) on acquiring new equipment such as new Poseidon surveillance aircraft, and new Hercules cargo planes. In May, Labour also spent $747 million on boosting Defence salaries to stem the loss of NZDF trained personnel. (Another National legacy.)

Peer pressure from our traditional allies may be driving us towards that costly leap to spending 2% of GDP on Defence - but politically, this could be only partly disguised as extra aid to Ukraine. The looming item on the Defence shopping list is the replacement for the ruinously expensive (and militarily all but useless) ANZAC frigates. Placing an order would certainly win us some brownie points across the Tasman – but that’s because it would be a huge job creation scheme for Aussie workers, in their shipyards. Again, that sort of deal won’t put much butter on the bread here at home.

That aside… Presumably the Defence Strategic Review will give us some clues about how we aim to juggle the following invitations

(a) to become part of the “second pillar” of the AUKUS nuclear pact between the UK, the US and Australia

(b) the closer defence links with NATO, perhaps via Japan

(c) the ongoing membership of the Five Eyes security alliance and

(d) the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework being promoted by the US

(e) the 2050 Strategy For The Blue Pacific development process being promoted by the Pacific Forum

With the exception of (e) these are all aimed at China. They amount to a tangled spaghetti bowl of defence pacts and economic alliances in our part of the world, and – as with television streaming services – there is a price to pay if we want to be sure that we’re interoperable with each and every one of them.

BTW, that word “interoperability” crops up a lot in the world of military spending. Evidently, it isn’t merely about having the same kind of gear that can be easily integrated within joint formations. Being truly interoperable is said to involve sharing a common mindset, and being agreed about the command structure as well.

Interoperability must be considered and implemented on three levels: the mental one, the structural one, and the materiel one. Mental interoperability pertains to a common language, the terminology, the doctrine, and the working procedures. It is crucial that all armed forces involved have a common understanding and a uniform approach. Structural interoperability relates to the adaptation of the command structure, the organisation of headquarters and units as well as the availability of communication and information systems. Materiel interoperability includes the compatibility of equipment and logistic cooperation.

Hmm. There’s not much room for an independent foreign policy in the modern “inter-operable” war room, is there? We not only have to think, act and obey orders in unison, but have to be sure we’re not bringing a knife to a gun fight. So then… What exactly is in it for New Zealand in all of this – apart from putting our trade access to China in jeopardy? AUKUS and NATO are both holding out to New Zealand the carrot of access to the latest cyber-security technology and know-how.

Now you’d think that being a paid up member of Five Eyes would give us automatic access to all that top-shelf cyber stuff. But apparently not. AUKUS advocates have promised New Zealand privileged cyber access of some sort, though it's still very unclear how – or whether – any of this could also be accessed, let alone monetised, by our own private cyber-tech sector.

NATO, going global

But NATO and Japan are offering each other cyber advances in spades. Who knew that in 2021, Japan and NATO held the world’s largest cyber defence war game? Who knew that NATO operates a Cyber Co-operation Centre in Estonia, to which it has stationed its designated experts in cyber defence and offence?

There has also been an uptick in emerging and disruptive technology sharing, including in areas such as quantum computing, novel materials, and AI. NATO approved Japan as an enhanced opportunity partner of its science and technology organization in 2021, expanding the group of then-non-members to four along with Australia [aha!] Sweden [aha, again!] and Finland.

This is very much a two way street. Japan now contributes to NATO’s Orwelian-named “Science for Peace and Security Program” initiative, through which NATO rewards with research grants any scientific experts whose work could conceivably advance NATO’s strategic defence and security aims:

...Experts on such issues as border and port security and nanotechnology for infrared sensors, as well as health responses to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear agent exposure.[My emphasis] A leading innovator in this field, Japan is also one of four partners to join Science for Peace and Security’s most recent initiative “Futures in the Indo-Pacific,” launched in early 2023, with the aim to strengthen ties with partners who “play an important role in the new international security landscape.”

That’s where some of our best friends are headed. Will New Zealand choose to become part of AUKUS or will we pursue closer defence ties with NATO - or both ? If the aim is to improve our cyber-security expertise, this looks like a devil’s bargain. The entry fees for these military clubs will be very expensive, in a whole variety of ways.

Keeping it fluid

Nearly 40 years ago, Paul Westerberg of the Replacements wrote and recorded this song for one of the group’s early albums. Here’s a timely revival by two veterans – Ben Lee and Georgia Maq of the now defunct Melbourne group Camp Cope – who have a special place for the Replacements in their hearts.

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