Aussies and Kiwis Are at Odds on Defense Readiness ; Australia Regards New Zealand's Plan to Downsize Military As

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Ask New Zealanders what it is that makes their country unique among Western nations, and those here in the capital will sometimes point to the array of ships berthed along the shoreline of this picturesque harbor.

None of these military boats, they often say with a note of pride, are nuclear-armed or -powered, not since 1987, when the New Zealand government banned nuclear vessels from entering its waterways.

Now, locals can point to the skyways, too, which the government this week effectively declared a military-free zone.

Prime Minister Helen Clark announced that her center-left government will sell its air force combat jets, cut back Navy funding, and buy new equipment to enable its Army to play a more prominent role in international peacekeeping.

By selling its 17 A4 Skyhawk combat jets and 17 training jets, the government also will eliminate as many as 700 jobs.

The changes are the most significant shift in defense strategy since passage of the antinuclear legislation, which soured relations with many of New Zealand's traditional allies, particularly its much larger neighbor, Australia, and the United States.

The decision - taken, says Ms. Clark, because the country faces no obvious external threat and is situated in what she describes as being an "incredibly benign" region - ends the air-to-ground strike capability that successive administrations have jealously maintained since World War II.

Although New Zealand has faced the possibility of armed invasion just once in the past 60 years - by Japan in the early 1940s - its armed forces have played a role in all of the major conflicts during the same time to have involved American and Australian troops.

Clark's government touts the latest move as a way for New Zealand to forge more of an independent regional identity while remaining more fully involved in any future defense operations abroad in which New Zealand is asked to serve.

The country's premier says the military now will be able to concentrate on what it does best, which lately has been training and equipping its forces to take part in United Nations-led peacekeeping operations. It most recently deployed 600 troops to help quell the unrest in the wake of the 1999 independence vote in East Timor. At the same time, the country stands to save nearly NZ$1 billion (US$424 million) over the next decade from this week's decision.

But the move isn't going down well with some. "It's a policy of isolationism," says Gerald Hensley, a former secretary of defense. "I realize that's a loaded term, but I'm not sure there's a better one."

New Zealand, he says, "no longer wants to tangle with the outside world ... except in limited, peacekeeping roles. But what will New Zealand do on any future occasion when it has to face serious, immediate trouble in the region? …