New Zealand Defence Policy: Has It Been Transformed? Dick Gentles Finds Some New Developments That Seem to Represent a Transformation of New Zealand's Approach to Defence

Article excerpt

Shortly before it was voted out of power, the previous New Zealand government led by the National Party struck a deal with the Clinton administration to replace New Zealand's fleet of outdated A-4 Skyhawk fighter aircraft with leased F-16 fighters. Not long after it was elected in 1999, the new Labour-led government under Prime Minister Helen Clark cancelled this deal. This was followed by a Cabinet decision in April 2001 to disband the air force's air combat wing altogether.

What are the implications of these decisions, beyond the impact on the structure of the RNZAF? What are the policies behind them? Do these policies represent a transformation of the New Zealand's defence policy?

One of the most significant changes in defence since the Second World War took place in the mid-1980s with the election of the Labour govermnent under David Lange. This government was of the view that New Zealand defence and security policies were shaped almost entirely by the Cold War, which in its view had little relevance to New Zealand's circumstances in the South Pacific.

The major changes were threefold: first, to ensure that New Zealand's anti-nuclear policies were reflected in defence policy; second, to assert its own voice in security matters and not be inhibited by alliance arrangements from doing what it thought was in its best interest; and third, to re-focus defence on the South Pacific. These were reflected in a Defence white paper tabled in 1987. (1) It stated that there was a need to examine defence arrangements 'to take account of the Government's firm policy to exclude nuclear weapons from New Zealand'.

It went on to state that:

   New Zealand is not threatened by
   invasion or large scale attack and
   no likelihood of such an attack is
   foreseen in the next decade. Indeed,
   the contingency of invasion
   is so remote that it need not form
   the basis of our defence strategy.
   Defence efforts must focus on
   more credible and feasible lower
   level threats, while maintaining a
   basis for expansion should more
   serious threats emerge.

      A regional focused defence
   policy is the most appropriate for
   New Zealand's strategic circumstances.

The Labour government's suspicions that the military was shaped and equipped to suit allies rather than meet New Zealand's security needs as a South Pacific nation were evident in the following passage from the white paper:

   It is also apparent that ANZUS was
   used as a screen for growing deficiencies
   in resources relevant to
   New Zealand's place in the South
   Pacific.

The desire for a more independent stance was reflected in the following statement:

   While the withdrawal of the
   United States military and intelligence
   cooperation has had a detrimental
   effect on the operational
   effectiveness of New Zealand's
   armed forces, it has had the positive
   results of giving impetus to the
   Government's objective of achieving
   greater self reliance.

National approach

When the National Party returned to power in 1990, it immediately undertook a defence review to address what it saw as major shortcomings in the defence policies of its predecessor. (2) One was recognition that the world had become a more dangerous place in the post-Cold War era and crises were erupting with very little warning.

The other concern was the Labour government's focus on the South Pacific because its benign environment provides no logic as a basis for structuring the military. This was evident even in the Labour 1987 white paper:

   the South Pacific is one of the
   more peaceful regions of the world
   ... the Pacific Island states view
   security primarily in economic
   terms ... most common risk is the
   destructive force of hurricanes and
   natural disasters.

The National government acknowledged that New Zealand did not lace a direct threat and its security requirements around New Zealand were very small. …