When the previous government released the first ever national security strategy last year, it forecast stormy geopolitical weather ahead. In the brief few months since then, the sky has darkened further still.
Beyond a slight rapprochement between China and the United States at the end of 2023, arms control remains poor, measures to prevent accidental war limited, and a genuinely rule-based international order patchy at best.
British foreign secretary David Cameron may have been speaking to his own government’s agenda when he said the “lights are absolutely flashing red on the global dashboard”. But the analogy still holds.
Three big issues are now rising to the boil: the war in Ukraine, tension in the South China Sea, and the widening disaster in Israel and Gaza. Each instance of global disorder touches Aotearoa New Zealand and its largely untested coalition government.
Ukraine in the balance
While New Zealand has not joined the fighting, it is not neutral on Ukraine. It has provided weapons, training and other forms of assistance – including joining actions against Russia at the International Court of Justice.
But the prognosis is not good. Russia’s military counterpunch is coming while external support for Ukraine is at risk of fading.
Defence officials in Sweden have warned their country should prepare for the possibility of conflict. A leaked plan from the German government shows it is also preparing for potential widening Russian aggression.
As a partner to NATO, New Zealand needs to consider its response should the tide of war turn against Ukraine – or worse still, spreads to other countries.
New Zealand has said it is “deeply concerned” about China’s tactics over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Of particular concern have been Chinese efforts to stop Philippine vessels resupplying citizens in the islands (to which the Philippines has sovereign rights).
The Permanent Court of Arbitration has affirmed Philippine claims to its territories. Although China opposes the court decision, a clear majority – including New Zealand – either positively acknowledge or support the ruling.
New Zealand also asserts “there is no legal basis for states to claim ‘historic rights’ with respect to maritime areas in the South China Sea”.
Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden last year promised to defend the Philippines should China attack. The region – where the Chinese navy confronted a New Zealand frigate during a freedom of navigation exercise last year – remains a raw nerve.
Widening Middle East threats
The situation in Israel and Gaza is a legal, political and ethical mess that risks spilling over. New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has already joined Australia and Canada to reiterate the need for a negotiated two-state solution and the importance of respecting international law.
However, there has so far been no mention of accountability for war crimes through the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court.
New Zealand’s focus has shifted to the protection of global waterways, specifically the Red Sea. With nine other countries, it has pledged to defend lives and protect the free flow of commerce in one of the world’s most critical waterways.
New Zealand has not been involved in the first military actions against Houthi rebels trying to control the sea lanes. But if things escalate, the coalition government has effectively signed up to fight a proxy group directly connected to an angry and dangerous Iran.
Increasing military spending
To meet these challenges at a practical and logistical level, New Zealand will need to invest more in its military. While the new government wants to control spending, it would be prudent to increase defence spending to at least 2% of GDP to match various allies.
It makes sense for New Zealand to focus on inter-operability and shared spending on common military platforms with its one official ally, Australia.
New Zealand can still maintain its nuclear-free policy and work for arms control while improving its own self-defence. It does not need the offensive capacity of the next generation of armaments (from AI and cyber capabilities to bioweapons), but it must have access to defences against them.
At the same time, self-defence need not be linked to new alliances such as the AUKUS security pact. The security issues outlined here are separate, not part of one large fire. China, North Korea, Russia and Iran are close. But they are not connected by mutual military obligations.
Independence and self-defence
It might make more sense for New Zealand to join agreements like AUKUS if other like-minded countries (such as Canada, South Korea and Japan) joined at the same time.
But this might also create problems. First, it could accelerate a divide of the world into two large blocs. And second, without the kind of trade agreements with the US that other partners enjoy, New Zealand would be more exposed than most.
An independent foreign policy where each issue is treated on its own merits should still be the preferred approach. There is much to be said for working with countries which have shared values and common histories.
At the moment, some challenges warrant New Zealand’s involvement, but others do not. Defending the values and agreements that underpin the United Nations and a rule-based international order is the best guide.
Simply to follow the US, come-what-may, is a dangerous bet, especially given the uncertainties around the presidential election in November. At the same time, not to be better militarily prepared is a utopian position New Zealand can no longer afford.