New Zealand’s emerging Five Eyes challenge

Line of Defence Magazine - Winter 2021

Five Power Defence Arrangements
Top brass meet at the 19th FPDA Defence Chiefs' Conference (FDCC), Singapore.

Dr Wayne Mapp writes that a new cold war has broken out and that New Zealand cannot avoid being drawn in. Staying on the right side of history will require deft diplomacy and smart strategy.

In summary: Australia is making its choice abundantly clear / Post-Brexit UK to be more engaged in security in the region / New Zealand will have to pay greater attention to its core security relationships.

Over the next five years New Zealand will face its biggest foreign policy challenge since the nuclear free issue of 35 years ago.  As with that issue, the essence of the challenge will be the relationship that New Zealand has with its traditional partners and allies.

The dichotomy is easily described. As the Prime Minister notes, Australia is our oldest and most important ally. However, an increasingly assertive China is our most important trading partner. 

The Chinese relationship extends beyond trade. China is also a major source of investment and migrants. A nation as large as China is inevitably going to take up much of New Zealand’s diplomatic bandwidth.  It is no mistake that New Zealand’s embassy in Beijing is among our largest.

For many decades New Zealand has been able to successfully balance our major security and trading relationships. Beijing understood that New Zealand’s core security relationships were with our traditional Five Eyes partners. This is still the case, but there is now much greater tension in maintaining the balance. 

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta clearly understood this with her Taniwha and Dragon speech. However, being aware of the challenge facing New Zealand is not the same as solving it.

It is clear that a new Cold War has broken out, with our Five Eyes partners on one side and China on the other. Can New Zealand avoid being drawn in? In my view, the answer is probably not. 

New Zealand won’t be able to avoid carrying some of the increasingly heavy obligations of the expectations of our Five Eyes partners. The trick will be doing enough to be counted as a creditworthy member of the Five Eyes Club, but not doing so much as to unnecessarily antagonise China. That is not going to be easy.

Australia is making its choice abundantly clear. Unlike New Zealand, Australia is a formal ally of the United States. Successive Australian Prime Ministers, whether they are Labor or Liberal, have made it very clear that Australia’s most important international relationship is with the United States. It is the bedrock of Australian security, and Australia will do what it takes to be within the first circle of United States security partners. 

That means comprehensive military interaction, including the basing of core United States military assets and ongoing exercises. There can be no doubt that if the alliance relationship requires joint freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea, then Australia will participate. The ‘war drums’ rhetoric out of Australia clearly indicate that they will do more if necessary.

New Zealand is not an ally of the United States. That means we can do less and, in any event, because of our size, will always do less. However, we can’t do nothing. Not if we value the Australian alliance. This is where the test will lie. 

New Zealanders do not like their country to be pressured into taking positions just because our other larger partners expect New Zealand to do so. New Zealand’s senior politicians and foreign policy establishment are going to have to work hard to determine what New Zealand can be reasonably expected to do as part of the Five Eyes partnership. 

Simply saying that Five Eyes is an intelligence organisation will not fly. If four of the Five Eyes nations are saying Five Eyes is a broader security relationship, even if it is not an alliance, then that is the reality. 

New Zealand will have to do enough on the broader security front if it wishes to be taken seriously. If New Zealand fails to do so, it will risk being seen in much the same way as Greece is seen within the EU and NATO.

This does not mean that New Zealand has to simply follow the other four nations. There are real choices to be made. 

For instance, New Zealand is unlikely to participate in freedom of navigation exercises with the Australia and United States navies. Much more likely is New Zealand making a greater commitment to FPDA exercises. 

The FPDA will assume a more important role in Asia Pacific security as the United Kingdom builds its broader international role, particularly in the Asia Pacific. The RNZAF’s new Poseidon P8 aircraft will be invaluable in giving New Zealand a bigger role within FPDA. 

Similarly, the NZDF could step up its training with the ADF, particularly in maritime and surveillance patrols in the South Pacific. 

In previous articles, I have suggested that New Zealand should invest in the Harry DeWolf class of offshore patrol vessels as the prime naval assets of the RNZN. One of the reasons to do so is to enable New Zealand to take a bigger role in naval patrol activities in the South Pacific, from the Antarctic to the Equator. Enough ships would need to be purchased to ensure a continuous patrol presence. That would mean not less than four, and possibly as many as six.

The new role that the United Kingdom is seeking in Asia and the Pacific will be an important lens through which to understand how New Zealand can find its own role. Clearly the first step will be the free trade agreement with the United Kingdom. 

The new free trade agreements that the United Kingdom will soon have with Australia and New Zealand, and no doubt also with Malaysia and Singapore as the other FPDA powers, are also seen by the United Kingdom as opening the pathway to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). It may be difficult for a non-Pacific nation to become a full member of CPTPP, however, New Zealand could promote a substantial; associated status for the United Kingdom.

The next few years will test New Zealand’s diplomatic prowess to a greater extent than any time in the last 35 years. New Zealand will not be able to so easily say is that all we want is good relations with everyone as we have been able to do so in the past. Choices will have to be made. 

New Zealand will have to pay greater attention to its core security relationships. Inevitably we will have to do more. The diplomatic art will be finding the way to do more without unnecessarily aggravating the extremely important economic and social relationship that New Zealand has with China.