The Labour-New Zealand coalition government has taken a fresh look at New Zealand's security settings in the recently released Strategic Defence Policy Statement 2018. At one level the statement is fundamentally a continuity document, building on the Defence white papers of 2010 and 2016. There is much in the three documents that represents a broad national consensus on defence policy.
But there are significant changes in the coalition government's 2018 statement, particularly in respect to China. The document takes a much more robust approach towards that country than the two white papers. Both facets of change and continuity need to be examined to determine where the weight of the document lies. The essential questions are the extent to which New Zealand is signaling a changed approach in respect of China, and whether this should be seen as the dominant theme of the 2018 statement.
There has, of course, been a change of government since the two white papers. Both the defence minister and the foreign minister are from New Zealand First, a political party that is more sceptical about the New Zealand-China relationship than either the Labour Party or National Party. Arguably New Zealand First is also more cautious about the relationship with the United States, though in this regard they may share common ground with their coalition partner, Labour, and, in particular, the support party, the Greens.
Since the Defence White Paper 2010, and the Defence White Paper 2016, New Zealand's defence policy has been remarkably stable. This is broadly continued in the 2018 statement. While each of the three policy documents have emphasised different aspects of defence policy, they all embody a consistent approach. The two earlier documents are about 70 per cent longer than the 2018 paper, so some things are more cryptically stated in the later statement than in the earlier two white papers.
All three documents emphasise certain key tenets that are emblematic of New Zealand's view of the world. New Zealand is committed to a rules-based system of international relations. New Zealand also primarily works with traditional partners, especially within the Pacific, but is open to a wider set of defence engagements. The New Zealand Defence Force is principally a combat capable force, but it has broader roles, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief which have increasing importance. All these elements are the central focus of the papers, but there are nuanced differences. Sometimes exactly the same words have been used in each of the documents, particularly where the issue is of fundamental importance.
In the course of the eight years between the 2010 document and the 2018 document, the world has continued to change. In particular China is rising, and this is seen as posing a specific challenge to New Zealand's traditional partners within the region. Resource competition, along with climate change, is also increasing. This has most significance in the Southern Ocean, with more and larger fishing fleets converging on the area. They are often well removed from any effective enforcement.
The most useful starting point is to examine New Zealand's commitment to a rules-based international system. Each of the three documents use this formulation, and the 2018 statement specifically acknowledges this continuity. At one level this is not surprising, since every nation is governed by international law. However, successive New Zealand governments have placed particular importance upon its value. As a small nation dependent upon an open system of international order and trade, New Zealand is especially vulnerable to any major disruption of this system. It is an expression of the importance of the role that legality, rather than force, should have as the primary governor of international relations. In the same manner, special primacy is given to the United Nations as the source of legitimacy of the use of force.
The 2018 statement is concerned about the challenges of navigating the current 'International order under pressure'. (1) One of the factors of this pressure is the rise of populism. The statement notes that 'Challenges to open societies and Western liberalism, driven by rising disillusionment with existing arrangements within these societies threaten to reduce the willingness of open liberal states to champion the rules-based order."
This point about populism seems to be specifically directed to the Trump administration where President Trump has taken a flamboyant and provocative approach to international relations. The president's populist approach, including the imposition of trade sanctions against China, reflects a sharper edge to the contest between the United States and China in the Asia-Pacific region. With Chinese economic growth continuing apace, China is able to increase its economic links throughout the region. 'While populism and nationalism may cause some nations to look inward at the expense of outward engagement, China is more confident in pursuing its aims, which include striving for greater connection through a range of new proposals, such as the Belt and Road initiative.' (3)