New Zealand, Australia and the Asia-Pacific Strategic Balance: From Trade Agreements to Defence White Papers: Robert Ayson Discusses New Zealand's Approach to Security in a Changing World

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As global power shifts towards Asia and the Asia-Pacific balance itself changes, New Zealand's strategic positioning becomes an important priority. Evidence of New Zealand's positioning can be found in the quest for free trade agreements with all of the major regional powers, and in our involvement in regional multilateralism where our South-east Asian partners are engaging the big powers simultaneously. The new defence white paper recognises New Zealand's interest in building a stronger relationship with the United States while accommodating a rising China. This is accompanied by a strong commitment to the Australia alliance, including co-operation on South Pacific security.

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Major systemic changes in international affairs generally happen slowly. So the proposition that New Zealand needs to think carefully about how it positions itself in a changing Asia-Pacific region is unlikely to be anything new. Similarly the underlying hypothesis that a transformation is occurring in the distribution of regional power is hardly new. Yet the demands of short-term considerations have a habit of crowding out the space we require to think clearly about the challenges this transformation brings for New Zealand's interests, and about the way we would like to be positioned as this process intensifies.

This transformation is happening in at least two ways. First, the locus of global power is shifting increasingly to Asia. This is first and foremost about the transfer of economic power. We only have to think about the implications of the recent international financial crisis--which have been especially troubling for the United States and many European economies and which have left Asia's most dynamic economies in a relatively stronger position--to find some additional evidence to support this thesis. Second, change is also occurring within the Asia-Pacific distribution of power: China is rising, India too is emerging, Japan is adjusting and the United States, which remains for the foreseeable future the strongest presence in the wider region, is anxious not to let its own position slip, as we see in the Obama administration's efforts to be regionally visible and active.

Both of these aspects of the power transition have a common element: the relative decline in Western influence in both global and Asia-Pacific political, economic and strategic affairs. Within our wider region, this suggests that the period in which security in Asia has mainly been underwritten by Western maritime pre-eminence--including by English-speaking and democratic powers--has a finite lifespan. This has particular historical significance for the Australasian part of the world. We once connected our security--at least until the fall of Singapore in 1942--to the power projection and presence of the British navy. We then came to enjoy the security benefits that the maritime strength of the United States brought to the wider region as the Pacific War turned in the Allies' favour and as Washington took up its post-war and Cold War roles in Asia.

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By 'we' is meant both New Zealanders and Australians. Yet our close friends across the Tasman Sea have generally felt more concerned than us New Zealanders about the Asia-Pacific strategic balance. Australia feels considerably more exposed to any reduction in Western maritime power in the region. But New Zealanders have also benefited, politically and economically, from many of the contributions the United States has made, and continues to make, to regional security in Asia.

Many of our Asian partners and friends, including Japan, Korea and most of the South-east Asian countries, have benefited from the same feature, even if some of the latter do not always say so in public. China has gained some benefit too, given its interest in a peaceful regional security environment which does not distract it from its medium-term economic development priorities, although China may come to increasingly feel that its dependence on that externally provided stability can now be reduced. …