New Zealand and Asia-Pacific Security: New Rationales for Engagement?

Article excerpt

Throughout the 1990s, New Zealand maintained a commitment to Asia-Pacific security as one of the three pillars of a broadly based defence policy. However, Wellington tended to define its regional security goals in very general terms, making few obvious steps towards the formal publication of a regional security strategy. This article provides an explanation for this somewhat indirect approach to regional security. It also explores New Zealand's future role in Asia-Pacific regional security against the backdrop of two important developments in the latter half of 1999. The first of these was New Zealand's extensive commitment to the multinational force in East Timor -- the largest overseas deployment by the New Zealand Defence Force since the Korean War. The second was the election of a centre-left Labour-Alliance government committed to a thorough review of New Zealand's defence priorities.

Introduction

The proposition that regional security matters to New Zealand is unlikely to raise many voices of domestic protest. But one does not have to be a post-modernist to recognize that perceptions of the region, and of security within it, depend on the eye of the beholder. It stands to reason that when New Zealand approaches security in the Asia-Pacific it does so from a perspective which reflects its own particular place in the world. This view is further filtered according to the way the government of the day defines the region and the security problems it is most keen to address.

This article begins with an examination of New Zealand's consistent approach to regional security during the 1990s under a series of governments led by the centre-right National Party. A comparison with Australia's more direct regional security strategy is used to illustrate the generality of New Zealand's approach. The latter is then explained with reference to six key factors, ranging from New Zealand's relative distance from major security events in the Asia-Pacific to Wellington's desire to keep its options open.

The final sections of the article deal with the potential change to this security policy status quo stemming from two key developments. The first of these is New Zealand's role in the international community's response to the post-referendum violence in East Timor. As Chair of the September 1999 Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit held in Auckland, New Zealand presided over the consideration by regional leaders of the escalating East Timor crisis on the increasingly wide sidelines of this important annual forum. [1] New Zealand then made substantial military contributions to the Australian-led International Force East Timor (INTERFET) and its replacement, the United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET).

Under INTERFET, New Zealand's commitment reached a high point of 830 troops and over 1,100 personnel in total from all three New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) services. [2] While New Zealand's contribution to East Timor has since been scaled back to 660 troops under UNTAET, [3] this is still a substantial undertaking for New Zealand, especially as it involves rotating battalion groups under a projected eighteen-month commitment until March 2001. [4]

The second major development was the November 1999 election of a centre-left coalition government comprising the Labour and Alliance Parties, which is also backed by the support of the Green Party in the House of Representatives. Prime Minister Helen Clark's new government has included in its heavy workload a commitment to revamp New Zealand's defence posture. [5] This promised overhaul will undoubtedly have implications for Wellington's future approach to regional security.

New Zealand and Australia on Regional Security: A Brief Comparison

The most obvious benchmark for assessing New Zealand's regional security role is the approach taken by. its nearest neighbour, Australia. This is to be expected not least because of Canberra's senior role in Wellington's most important defence partnership. …