• Toby Irwin

New Zealand: Security Concerns on the Edge of the World

New Zealand, alongside Australia, holds a perplexing role in the Asia-Pacific. It relies on the United States for its security and yet is increasingly dependent on China for economic growth and investment. New Zealand's future foreign policy is likely to be dependent on two things: China-US competition and Australian defence reforms.

There is an assumption in Wellington that international security is founded upon things such as international law and international institutions. Traditionally, this has meant that alliance formations and hard power have been regarded as secondary (though still relevant) considerations. This assumption is thrown into question given the simply staggering shift of both economic concentration and power from the West to East Asia. The result is that the institutions and 'rules based order' that Wellington places faith in is increasingly going to be controlled (or, arguably, manipulated or marginalised) by the influence of powers that did not partake in its creation. The United States has implicitly looked to Australia and New Zealand, though especially the former, for security assurances in the region. This has seen a duplicitous balancing game where Canberra and Wellington have said they support the US in de facto competition with China, while in reality choosing not to take a side.

Indeed, while a New Zealand government white paper noted the ideal to "support a stable and rules based international system", it recognised a number of growing challenges. These included, inter alia, "heightened tensions in the East, South China Seas and South Asia", "the rise of China and deteriorating and unpredictable relations between Russia and the West" and "a fragile and weak economic trajectory in the South West Pacific. At the same time the region is increasingly contested, with rising interest from China coupled with instability in some island states."

Adaptations to future trends rely on sound belief that there exist a reasonable chance that relations with rising powers will deteriorate. Adaptations therefore come as a response to sound analytical conclusions. Questions must be asked such as what future strategic threats face the region? This is where New Zealand's relationship with Australia enters the equation: after all, geographic and cultural proximity makes Australia the primary bilateral partner for security.

The current administration in the United States has cast doubts over commitments to regional security. Indeed, while a trade war exists between China and the US, security concerns are less prominent outwith the defence-security establishment in Washington. Combined with the erosion of the rules based order, and threats highlighted in the aforementioned government white paper, analysts have been forced to ponder how to defend the region against a hostile Asian power independently. According to Hugh White, this is a question that revolves around maritime control. Current doctrine in Canberra revolves around the assumption that sea power projection is essential. However, he believes that recent decades have demonstrated it to be much easier to sink enemy ships than to defend one's own. Given that Australia and New Zealand do not possess offensive intentions, then the security emphasis on defensive capabilities seems most sound.

Sea denial of hostile states to Australia and New Zealand's immediate waters would supposedly require hikes in spending, with estimates in the former being a rise from 2% to 3.5%; a massive rise by any standard. Front-line aircraft numbers in Australia would need to double and submarine procurement to rise by around 150%. This would also need increased manpower and technical/operational integration. New Zealand, possessing 15% the GDP of Australia would alleviate a significant pressure from Australia should it decide to copy Canberra's policy of sea denial.

This is of course all speculative, and would hinge on a number of factors that develop over the next couple of decades. For example, would the US remain committed to the SW Pacific even if it withdrew from East Asia? How might other powers, such as the UK and France (that have interests in the region) support Australia and New Zealand? Another consideration is, put frankly, would the offensive state possess nuclear capability that would invalidate these costly sea denial preparations? Regardless, New Zealand's reliance on an international rules based order may prove costly in a region in which relative power is increasingly concentrated in states averse to this order's preservation. Security is likely to be found through close and long term collaboration with its immediate neighbour as well as leveraging support from farther afield powers in North America and Europe.


Much of the thinking behind this article comes from Hugh White's lecture delivered at the Australian National University in September 2019. View it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_4B-JZQG9FA&list=PLtf-_sl_bbQb7Y6AY0VO6K6AlnQ9CXW1s&index=2&t=0s

Cover photo courtesy of Royal NZ Navy (Flickr), Free for reuse under Creative Commons 2.0 generic license.

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK foreign policy and the defence/aerospace industry.