Anyone contemplating the Turnbull Government's ship-building plans could be forgiven for thinking that an ambitious maritime strategy was the central feature of Australia's recent Defence White Paper. But to justify twelve post-Collins Class submarines, the future frigates, several offshore patrol vessels, and the Air Warfare Destroyers, among others, a compelling narrative needed to be found in the strategic environment. As I have argued elsewhere, Australia's depiction of challenges to global rules in the South China Sea were just what the doctor ordered. In conjunction with an Indo-Pacific conception of the strategic neighbourhood, Australia's northern maritime approaches have moved further northwards. There is a new sweet spot for Australia's maritime strategy.
New Zealand's 2016 Defence White Paper, released by the Key Government on Wednesday, also puts a premium on promoting maritime strategic interests.
Australian policymakers will have read with interest Wellington's growing concern about developments in the South China Sea and challenges to the international rules-based system. And while the Key Government has not joined Canberra in using ANZUS terminology to refer to the Australia-New Zealand alliance, its second White Paper confirms that New Zealand has 'no better friend and no closer ally' than Australia. As was the case in 2010, coming to Australia's assistance in a severe crisis is depicted in the 2016 document as one of the most important missions for the New Zealand Defence Force.
But all of this does not add up to a New Zealand replica of Australia's maritime strategy. Instead the Key Government has produced something close to a 'Defence of New Zealand' White Paper, dominated by three maritime-rich priorities in its locality.
Two of these are nothing especially new, although Wellington is portraying them as becoming more challenging. The first is protecting New Zealand's extensive exclusive economic zone and meeting responsibilities in one of the world's largest search and rescue areas. This is one of the justifications for the government's commitment to an enhanced maritime surveillance capability, although the ability to operate much further afield is also a driver here.
The second is maintaining New Zealand's ability to deploy across the South Pacific's maritime vastness to support neighbours in difficulty, and to do so independently if necessary. Here there will be a new littoral operations support vessel for the Royal New Zealand Navy, foreshadowed six years ago, which can be deployed to the South Pacific and further afield for 'international coalition activities.'
It is the third aspect that should really catch our attention: the southern Oceans and Antarctica. Included is the blunt statement that New Zealand 'maintains a right of sovereignty in the Ross Dependency'. Concerns about growing external interest in southern waters and the future of the Antarctic Treaty System are not hard to find in the White Paper. This comes with obvious force structure implications. The replacement for New Zealand's useful (and nearly worn out) replenishment tanker will be ice-strengthened. So too will what is to become New Zealand's third offshore patrol vessel. Also in the mix is a further look at New Zealand's contribution to the joint logistics pool for supporting Antarctic activities (including science), and noises about what this may mean for future airlift requirements.
The result is that New Zealand probably has a maritime strategic sweet spot as well, but it is a different one to Australia's. This is not to suggest a lack of Australia-New Zealand cooperation in areas of shared interest. After all, the relationship has intensified with every combined Pacific deployment from Bougainville in the late 1990s to RAMSI in Solomon Islands in 2003 to the recent responses to Cyclone Winston in Fiji. Moreover, a greater focus on Australia's own Antarctic interests is also detectable in Canberra's 2016 White Paper. Canberra is likely to welcome the initiatives New Zealand is taking.
But where Australia is heading with the development of its advanced maritime combat capabilities will challenge New Zealand's ability to stay in touch. Australia's big decisions are the two most costly purchases in history: the dozen post-Collins Class submarines and the Joint Strike Fighters. New Zealand's equivalents are three more modest requirements that will take the lion's share of what is a significantly larger capital investment plan over the next dozen years: replacements for the C-130 Hercules, the P-3 Orions and the 2 ANZAC frigates.
All three projects are clear signs that the Key Government wants its successors to have options to deploy well beyond New Zealand's southern sweet spot. And the third (and last) of them offers a theoretical chance for New Zealand's involvement in the massive amount of steel cutting that will be happening in South Australian shipyards. That is, if Wellington can afford future frigates which are larger than the ships it might ideally prefer, and is rewarded by the offsets which accrue to New Zealand's defence industry. Perhaps New Zealand's extra Offshore Patrol Vessel could fit into the production line too.
But Australia and the US (whose Asian rebalance the Key Government's White Paper specifically endorses) will need realistic views on the maritime combat power New Zealand can offer. They might also have noticed that while New Zealand's latest White Paper breaks new ground in endorsing a more militarily active Japan, it also places more emphasis on China as an 'important strategic partner' than was evident in the equivalent Australian document.
Photo by Flickr user NZ Defence Force.