5. NZ eyes new China risks in defence review

Updated

Defence Minister Ron Mark says the Government's new defence strategy reflects "turbulent times" in the world. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

A new Government report has offered a worrying picture of threats to New Zealand and the international order, saying pressure will play out in newly potent ways - including from “an increasingly confident” China. Sam Sachdeva reports.

Defence Minister Ron Mark says the report's unusually bold remarks about China are not about picking on the country, but reasserting New Zealand’s independent foreign policy.

However, one expert has predicted “bumps in the road” for the NZ-China relationship as a result of the newly bold comments.

The Strategic Defence Policy Statement , released by Mark on Friday morning, is the Government’s update of its predecessor’s 2016 Defence White Paper.

The Strategic Defence Policy Statement, released by Defence Minister Ron Mark on Friday morning, is the Government’s attempt to update its predecessor’s 2016 Defence White Paper to reflect its priorities and the changing environment.

The report appears unusually frank when it comes to New Zealand’s strategic environment and security implications, saying pressure on the international rules-based order will play out “in newly potent ways” close to home.

“We will face compounding challenges of a scope and magnitude not previously seen in our neighbourhood.”

Confident China, disruptive Russia

“An increasingly confident” China’s integration into the rules-based international order has not been accompanied by adoption of similar values, the report says.

“Both domestically and as a basis for international engagement, China holds views on human rights and freedom of information that stand in contrast to those that prevail in New Zealand.”

China’s alternative development model, “a liberalising economy absent liberal democracy”, had challenged conventional thinking and allowed it to assert its interests more confidently as it sought a larger global leadership role.

The report specifically mentions China’s expanded military presence in disputed areas of maritime Asia, saying China has “determined not to engage with an international tribunal ruling on the status of sovereignty claims”.

It cites Russia as another country disrupting the international order, one that has attempted to discredit Western democracy through information operations and “exploiting existing fissures” within societies.

It says Russia's challenges to laws and norms, which have at times been deniable and below the threshold for response, included social media campaigns in United States and United Kingdom elections that “amplified political polarisation”.

Mark: China comments 'nothing new'

Mark said the report contained “nothing new to China”, as he had raised New Zealand’s concerns recently in a bilateral meeting with his Chinese counterpart.

“They are friends and people we wish to better relationships with, but there are things that are not conducive to peace and stability, that raise opportunity for miscalculations that are unhelpful.”

Asked about which of China’s activities were creating concern, Mark referred to “the circumstances that some of our Pacific Islands nations find themselves in”, as well as its
military installations on disputed territory in the South China Sea.

“We have an obligation if we are to protect our economy, if we are to remain a prosperous nation, to ensure that we have the freedom of movement and the freedom to trade and the freedom to transmit through those means.”

“There is a price for having independence of mind, there is a responsibility to be open and frank. But the key is to always keep the doors open, maintain respectful dialogue with people and help people understand your perspective and for you to understand their perspective.”

The document’s release was not a “pick on China moment”, he said, but a reassertion of New Zealand’s independent foreign policy, referring to its previous stances against nuclear weapons and in favour of giving women the right to vote.

“There is a price for having independence of mind, there is a responsibility to be open and frank. But the key is to always keep the doors open, maintain respectful dialogue with people and help people understand your perspective and for you to understand their perspective.”

Mark did not believe the report would be received poorly by China, given the previous discussions he had had.

“They acknowledge our position, we acknowledge theirs, we respect each other and I think we probably respect each other more for virtues of the fact that we have an open conversation as opposed to...talking about things behind each other’s backs.”

'Bumps in the road' ahead

David Capie, the director of the Centre for Strategic Studies, said the comments about China appeared to be a case of “what we say publicly [catching] up with what we’ve been saying privately for a long time”.

However, Capie said there were still problems with understanding the Government’s overall position when it came to China, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern naming the country as one of New Zealand’s four most important relationships and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters refraining from naming China when discussing the South China Sea.

“Here we have quite a forward-leaning, new set of language, so what you think is the message we’re meant to take out of that is an interesting one.”

He believed the strategy would be received positively by New Zealand’s Five Eyes partners, but said there would be “bumps in the road” with China.

“I don’t think China was very happy about the comments Mr Peters made last week, so if they don’t like those they sure as heck aren’t going to like what’s in this document.”

University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady, whose Magic Weapons paper published last year outlined Chinese efforts to gain influence in New Zealand, said the statement’s remarks about China “really resonate with me”.

“The minister said that New Zealand would speak very forthrightly to China, and that’s what a true friend does - to say what it really thinks.”

Brady said the document and Mark’s comments were a continuation of the sentiment from Peters’ pre-Budget speech where he said New Zealand faced “a great turning point” in its history.

Climate change's security threat

As signalled by Mark earlier, the document also focuses on the security implications of climate change, which it says will most acutely and immediately affect the Pacific and broader developing world - “places comparatively less equipped to handle these challenges”.

Climate change is already increasing extreme weather conditions, presenting a threat to marine and coastal ecosystems in the Pacific, it says.

“Where livelihoods are affected, climate change will induce displacement and migration (both internal and cross-border) and has the potential to destabilise areas with weak governance, magnifying traditional security challenges.”

Capie said the policy statement was "quite a clever document" in terms of binding together the different policy priorities of coalition partners, including the Pacific, climate change, and New Zealand communities.

"[It] provides a type of glue I think which will hold together the different parts of the coalition, the different parts of the Government, and give them a kind of common ground to support defence."

"You can talk about what you want to do, but finding the money to actually carry that through I think is going to be much more challenging."

However, there were still question marks about whether the Government would provide the funding that appeared to be necessary to equip the NZDF for "this much more worrying strategic environment".

"You can talk about what you want to do, but finding the money to actually carry that through I think is going to be much more challenging."

Mark said a review of the Defence Capability Plan would be completed by the end of the year, providing a better idea of how much money was needed.

"It’s my job to ensure the Defence Force has surety and security in what they can expect to be delivered to them in capability, which obviously means the money attached as well."

Article updated: 3.25pm.