In every crisis lies opportunity, so the saying goes. The collision of the guided missile destroyer (DDG) USS Fitzgerald with a Philippines-registered cargo ship, near Japan on 17 June, was a human tragedy, killing seven US sailors in circumstances that defy easy explanation, but which underline the hazards of everyday seamanship in the era of automation.
The accident was also an operational blow for the US Navy (USN), as it seriously damaged the Fitzgerald, removing a ballistic missile defence–capable warship from frontline service for a prolonged period of repairs, at a time when US assets are thinly stretched across the vast Pacific Command (PACOM).
One unforeseen benefit of the Fitzgerald’s misfortune could be a further cementing of ties between the US and New Zealand navies. In the aftermath of the collision, New Zealand’s Chief of Defence Force, Tim Keating, contacted his US counterparts to offer support.
New Zealand has an ANZAC frigate, Te Kaha, already deployed in the region. According to New Zealand media, Te Kaha will now extend her Pacific deployment to support the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier group during its time in the Western Pacific. The Nimitz is relieving the USS Carl Vinson, which has recently been reinforcing the US military presence off the Korean Peninsula.
While Te Kaha is no match in capability for the Fitzgerald, or perhaps even for the phased-array radar and combat-management system upgrades to Australia’s ANZAC frigates, she can still usefully plug gaps in the US Navy’s coverage opened up by the temporary loss of a DDG.
Of greater significance, the noble New Zealand gesture builds on the positive momentum from last year’s US warship visit to participate in the RNZN’s 75th anniversary fleet review, and the good will generated by the same ship’s disaster-relief efforts in the wake of the Kaikoura earthquake last November. US-New Zealand relations have been on a steadily upward trajectory since George Bush Jr’s second term. The re-anchoring of naval ties commands a symbolic premium, given that Wellington’s 1980s ban on US nuclear-propelled warships from visiting Kiwi ports was the trigger for New Zealand’s suspension from the ANZUS alliance.
The Royal Australian Navy previously 'embedded' a frigate, HMAS Sydney, with the USS George Washington carrier group, during the latter’s stint in Seventh Fleet service, in 2013. Embedding of this kind prompted some concerns in Australia about potential entrapment, including in Taiwan conflict scenarios. The boldness of New Zealand’s move is therefore surprising.
Does Te Kaha’s frontline integration at the pointy end of Washington’s maritime 'big stick' constitute a signal of recharged ANZUS alliance cohesion, in the direction of China and North Korea? The latter possibility should not be overlooked given New Zealand’s active status as a 'sending state' of the United Nations Command in Korea, and current US interest in buttressing international support to put pressure on Pyongyang. Once Nimitz departs the Seventh Fleet area, it is possible that Te Kaha could continue to operate alongside other US Navy ships in the region, perhaps setting the stage for future cooperation with New Zealand’s pocket surface force.
But it would be premature to read New Zealand’s gallant deed as signifying a sea change in strategic threat perceptions towards China. Wellington remains literally and metaphorically at a distance from Canberra, let alone the US, on that score. ANZUS may not be formally revived, but the circumstances around Te Kaha’s temporary augmentation of the US Seventh Fleet will be noticed and long remembered in Washington and Honolulu. Friends in need repay the deed.