From the Pacific: A New Zealand perspective on Australia's strategic role

Colin James’s paper to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Global Forces conference 26-27 September 2006

My brief is to give a New Zealand perspective on Australia’s strategic role (1) so what I will say is my perspective not the New Zealand perspective, in the sense either of an interpretation of the official government perspective or of the country’s collective perspective — though, of course, my perspective is very much informed and coloured by both.

Let me first set a context of some simple facts of life about New Zealand and its connection with Australia. (2)

First, New Zealand is a fraction of Australia’s size in landmass and population. The relationship is inescapably asymmetric. This generates misperceptions, which colour all aspects of the relationship, including the strategic relationship.

Second, New Zealand is profoundly different from Australia — in geology, climate, flora and fauna and its indigenous people. Those differences have shaped the way New Zealanders think. Australians and New Zealanders are foreigners.

Third, New Zealand is profoundly the same as Australia — in British colonisation and an Anglo-Celtic majority, the common law, Westminster politics and a rich European and British cultural heritage. Australians and New Zealanders are family.

Fourth, Australia is strategically critical to New Zealand in economic terms and New Zealanders and New Zealand policymakers see the relationship predominantly through an economic lens. Now and for some time ahead New Zealand is and will be one of the less-well-off states of the now highly integrated Australasian economy. So New Zealanders at all skill (and non-skill) levels migrate westward at the rate of about 33,000 a year in search of higher incomes and more opportunities.

Fifth, New Zealand is Pacific. It is Pacific by an unalterable fact of geography, the march of demography and cultural evolution as it defines itself as a now fully independent nation in mentality as well as de jure. Australia looks on the Pacific.. New Zealand looks on the world fromthe Pacific.

Given these commonalities and differences, it should be unsurprising that the strategic outlooks are closely aligned in some respects and in other respects very different. This duality has at times confused perceptions and expectations of each other on both sides of the Tasman.

Hugh White was the first Australian, to my knowledge, to grasp fully that duality and to argue, in 2001, for an approach based making the most of the commonalities, (3) though before him John Howard had, I think, reached the same conclusion, especially after New Zealand’s indispensable contribution in East Timor. Now more people in Canberra follow Hugh White’s path and even discover some potential lessons. I particularly note a series of recent papers by Robert Ayson, (4) a New Zealander who is now a senior fellow at Australian National University. And the tone of the security relationship is increasingly one of pragmatic cooperation, reinforced in the Status of Forces Agreement of 27 May 2005. (5)

The differences became acutely uncomfortable two decades ago when New Zealand extended its environmentalist-based anti-nuclear policy to ban nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed ships and aircraft. But in fact New Zealand had marked out different positions many times before then, in part because while in its long chrysalis of empire it viewed the world through a London lens: New Zealand donated a battleship to the Royal Navy a century ago while Australia founded its own navy; New Zealand kept most of its troops in North Africa and Italy in the second world war when Australia concentrated on fighting the Japanese; New Zealand saw ANZUS and SEATO as second best to NATO; New Zealand joined the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s only with great reluctance; all before its anti-nuclear policy first pursued in 1972-75 and rigidified in 1985-86 ruptured its security relationship with the United States. Moreover, particularly under Labour governments, New Zealand has since the 1930s, when it broke with Britain over Ethiopia, given more credence to notions of collective security and multilateral mandates. This contrasts with Australia’s tighter and more assertive focus on its national interests, pursued in part through its United States alliance.

It is inconceivable Australia would risk rupture with the United States as New Zealand did. It was inconceivable that New Zealand could have joined the Iraq invasion without severe political ructions.

Nor are New Zealand’s differences the work of minority leftists and pacifists. They are broadly supported. When in July 2005 the conservative National party leader, Don Brash, was trapped into hinting that he might repeal just the part of the anti-nuclear law banning nuclear-powered vessels, that allowed Helen Clark’s ruling Labour party to get itself off the opinion poll ropes and back into the election race, which it eventually won — and that was in part because the anti-nuclear policy is not just strategic but reflects also an environmentalist dimension. (6) Moreover it was the National party administrations of the 1990s which allowed defence spending to slide by about a third in share-of-GDP terms which limited the trans-Tasman “closer defence relationship” agreement (CDR) designed to step around the anti-nuclear fallout. One the commonest complaints in Canberra through that decade was that New Zealand was freeloading on Australia. It has been Helen Clark’s Labour administrations since 1999, which, though initially deepening the despair in Washington and Canberra by disestablishing the fighter wing in 2000 and freezing at two the number of frigates, have set in train an extensive re-equipment of the army and of naval and air force logistical support capacity and in 2005 committed to a 10-year programme of modest year-by-year real spending increases that should lift army numbers to two full battalions.

There are differences between the two main parties. But they are narrower now than at any time since the Vietnam war. The National party might spend more, though don’t bet on it. It might buy some fighter planes but that is very unlikely if it comes at the cost of spending on the army. It reposes less faith in the United Nations than Labour and more willingness to join military operations without a United Nations mandate; but it is most unlikely to reactivate the United States alliance if that requires a change in the nuclear policy. Most of the rest of the difference is rhetorical.

By contrast, from a New Zealand perspective, Australia’s bipartisanship is ANZUS-based and committed to high-technology interoperability with the United States and a significant military presence in the region (though I do note Kevin Rudd’s reported comment last week that Australia is taking the United States lead too often on foreign policy decisions and that “at some stage during the last decade Australia’s longstanding tradition of innovative, independent diplomacy appears to have been snap-frozen” (7) — most New Zealanders, from their vantage point of an “independent” foreign policy, would agree).

Sum up those differences and you conclude New Zealand and Australia, as I said earlier, are foreigners.

But look on the other side of this coin.

New Zealand is not allied with the United States but, broadly speaking and with the proviso of independence of action, it is aligned with the United States: in broad democratic values and practices; in Anglo-Celtic origins; and in the Enlightenment inheritance. Helen Clark was quick after September 11 2001 to offer fighting, then reconstruction, troops for Afghanistan. She contributed to Operation Enduring Freedom in the Gulf and joined the United States-led Proliferation Security Initiative. As soon as there was a United Nations mandate for the Iraq occupation, Clark committed reconstruction troops. Clark’s New Zealand is Pacific but it is not pacifist.

New Zealand has for more than half a century been among the most active peacemaking and peacekeeping nations. New Zealand initiated the Bougainville settlement. It is alongside Australia in East Timor and the Solomons and will be in future in hotspots in the region — and Australian generals seem to be genuine in their praise of New Zealand troops’ professionalism. The two armies mesh well and in some respects New Zealanders’ different approach is a useful complementarity. There is now a pragmatic cooperation and recognition of each others’ different value.

And New Zealand is allied to Australia. There is no question that if Australia was attacked, New Zealand would treat that as an attack on itself and respond accordingly. Ministers recite that as a mantra (though expect never to be called upon).

So New Zealand and Australia, as I said earlier, are family.

But embedded in that automatic commitment to help Australia defend itself from attack is a profound difference of vantage point and preoccupation. Safe and distant New Zealand’s “nightmare”, to quote Hugh White again, is of economic insecurity; economically confident Australia’s nightmare is of a threat to its territorial integrity and (perhaps more relevantly since the Defence Update 2005 declared a military attack remote for the foreseeable future) to its national interests — and, I note from John Howard’s speech yesterday, “way of life” — with a heightened worry about terrorist attacks at home and abroad and about refugees. (8) Those different nightmares yield different perspectives.

One is the absence of credible external threat to New Zealand’s territorial integrity — a “distance of tyranny” (pace Geoffrey Blainey), a distance that also applies to worries about refugees. This in part determines the electorate’s and governments’ parsimony in military spending and makes it unlikely any government could win an electoral mandate to spend commensurately with Australia. (9) And if a real threat of some sort were to materialise, New Zealanders are too few anyway to counter it. Hence New Zealand looks to multilateral options: being a good international citizen, playing by the rules of international law and preferring multilateral mandates. (10)

The second absence of threat is by New Zealand to anyone else. New Zealand is too distant, small and insubstantial. That lends logic to the recent focus on the army, as a well-equipped, well-trained, readily deployable force, well supported logistically by air and sea, able quickly to join in a coalition with others to make the peace on the ground and to keep the peace on the ground once made. (11) High-technology fighters and warships don’t fit that frame, especially if there are so few of them they have to operate within others’ forces — and even more especially if they consume money that could build the army. Besides, Helen Clark argues, fighters and frigates are not much use against suicide bombers. And she has always rejected the argument that high-technology air and naval capacity generates more goodwill with Asia (not to mention the United States and Australia) when it comes to winning trade and other concessions (though a different administration might take a different view on this.)

Seen from this modest perspective, Australia projects a sense of itself as “big”, a middle power capable of playing and intending to play a role outside its borders, including in any Asian conflict, and the only force capable of keeping order in the South Pacific. New Zealand is harmless and Australia is not. Australia, especially given its “deputy sheriff” alliance with the United States, can fashion (benign) threat — though whether it can keep up the necessary investment is a matter of speculation in Wellington as much as Canberra. Moreover, unlike New Zealand, Australia can credibly defend itself, both because of its investment in that capability and given its United States alliance.

It is at this point that, from a New Zealand perspective, the two countries’ differences transmute into useful complementarity. Non-threatening New Zealand sees itself as having an easier relationship with south-east and east Asian countries than Australia: soft cop to Australia’s hard cop, New Zealand’s multilateralism offsetting Australia’s tighter focus on its national interests. New Zealand was able without hesitation to sign ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation as a precursor to an invitation to join the East Asia Summit, whereas Australia had to think long and hard about it. Both countries are navigating some tricky shoals in balancing their economic and security interests in China and the United States. Having been the first country with a developed economy to open free trade negotiations with China, (12) New Zealand is being drawn into the Chinese sphere of influence and will over time face some interesting challenges offsetting that with closer relations with India and continued relations with the United States. There is in some quarters a nervousness that Australia’s stance could, if things go wrong, complicate New Zealand’s balancing act.

It bears noting in passing that New Zealand’s relations with the United States, including military relations, have improved significantly in the past year. There is a realistic prospect that United States’ ban on joint exercises and training, which has been waived to allow training of New Zealand SAS troops en route to Afghanistan and on two more recent occasions, will be lifted. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, after visiting New Zealand in March to discuss New Zealand’s initiatives in the Pacific, has since talked firmly of focusing on common interests, including security interests (the two have long worked together on trade and research) instead of the divisive nuclear issue. Republican presidential hopeful Senator John McCain, among others, has pushed for a free trade agreement and there are hints that such negotiations may reach the agenda. This change of attitude may be due both to the United States’ need to reach out to more than the Iraq invasion coalition as things have gone bad there and also to recognition of New Zealand’s role in Afghanistan, Timor and, particularly, in the Pacific.

Which brings me to New Zealand’s Pacific dimension. New Zealand was originally settled from the Polynesian Pacific and since the 1960s large numbers more have come to the join the indigenous Maori. It is nearly one-quarter Polynesian in its population makeup and more in its armed forces, with a Maori Chief of Defence Force. Maori have recognised constitutional and cultural status and the mainstream language and custom is increasingly influenced by Maori, and to some extent Pacific, language and custom. (13) When the army goes to the Pacific, locals see Pacific people and whites working easily together and those whites have some understanding of Pacific ways. Again, an absence of threat.

It also engenders superior feelings in New Zealand about Australia in the Pacific: a “we know and you don’t” attitude, reinforced by the success of the Bougainville intervention. This is at most only partly true and generally much less true of Melanesia which, Fiji apart, has only relatively recently gained high profile in New Zealand. New Zealand also knows, however, that when things go bad in the South Pacific, only Australia has the muscle and the numbers to intervene effectively (note Ross Terrill’s comment at this conference last year (14)). In such events Pacific New Zealand can in a sense be the interpreter.

And, as New Zealand would see it, Australia needs an interpreter. From a New Zealand perspective, Australia sees the Pacific as potential or actual failed states, a potential source of terror and/or transnational crime and/or drug trafficking and/or pandemics (not to mention a corrosive China-Taiwan rivalry) and accordingly fashions an Iraq-style fixit response which a New Zealand analysis would say is bound to fail because it fails to see the island societies, economies and governments in their totality. New Zealanders, perhaps unjustly, would urge a more subtle analysis. Periodic military and policing interventions won’t address the lack of jobs for the exploding populations in Melanesia, which pose a complex strategic economic, social and political challenge for Australia and New Zealand, not just the islands themselves. Pacific labour mobility is just one of a number of interrelated issues.

Nevertheless, make no mistake, whatever the past rivalry — not least over the appointment of Greg Urwin as Pacific Forum Secretary-General in 2003 — Pacific New Zealand wants Australia and its muscle in the Pacific and Australia’s recent decision to add two battalions to the army to improve its on-the-ground capability in the region is seen as welcome realism. (15)

Which leaves the gritty subject of terrorism. From their safe little cave at the bottom of the world, New Zealanders are essentially spectators of terror — again an absence of a sense of threat. Nevertheless, ministers are, as Defence Minister Phil Goff has said, aware that “New Zealand is not immune to the security challenges … such as terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and the illegal movement of people, drugs and weapons”. (16) So essentially New Zealand’s policy responses have been to fit in with the requests from the United States, Australia and international authorities in “whole-of-government” responses involving police, customs and intelligence sharing. Whether this amounts to a perspective on Australia’s strategic role depends on whether combating terrorism is strategic or a case-by-case policing action. Given that it is principally Islamist terrorism that has generated the “war on terror”, that depends in part on a view of Islam and the link between Islamic teaching and violence, which is much more discussed (viz, over the Pope’s entirely justified remarks) in Australia than in New Zealand. It might take a Bali-type attack on New Zealanders abroad or a home-grown outrage to jolt New Zealanders into full empathy with Australians on terror.

I will pass over the wider dimensions of water, energy and climate change as strategic issues. Water, I think, is a bigger international issue (and economic threat) than either country yet recognises, energy is going to get very big (but both countries are energy-rich, at least potentially) and New Zealand bothers more about climate change than Australia.

So what sums up a New Zealand perspective on Australia’s strategic role? Essentially a pragmatic ambivalence: Australia is big, even a bit grandiose and inclined to insensitivity; Australia marches alongside the United States in a way New Zealand never has; Australia reaches for the hardware when New Zealand would look for other options, at least as an adjunct; but New Zealand is (sotto voce) mighty glad Australia is there and has the United States in tow; and New Zealand is keen to keep pragmatic cooperation going.

New Zealanders would probably endorse Robert Ayson’s comment that the two countries have “different but by no means incompatible outlooks”. (17) And, from a New Zealand perspective, Australians seem by and large to have come tacitly to endorse that, too.


1. I shall take as my guide a modified version of Allan Behm’s five-item formulation (see citation under note 3 below, p104) — direct defence of Australia and its interests, protecting regional defence interests, maintaining the alliance with the United States, maintaining effective regional defence relationships, particularly with New Zealand and retaining a capacity to contribute to broader international security efforts, especially in cooperation with the United Nations — to which I add, actively participate in the war on terror.

2. I have explored the trans-Tasman relationship since 1990 in “Three-step with Matilda: trans-Tasman relations, 1990-2005”, in ed Alley, Roderic, New Zealand in the World 1990-2005 (Victoria University Press, Wellington, forthcoming) and the future relationship in “Foreign and Family: the Australian Connection — Sensible Sovereignty or Niggling Nationalism” in ed Lynch, Brian, New Zealand and the World: the Major Foreign Policy Issues, 2005-2010 (New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, Wellington 2006), pp29-37. The notes to the first of those chapters point to other source materials.

3. White, Hugh, “Living without illusions: where our defence relationship goes from here”, in Catley, Bob, Moving Together or Drifting Apart — papers from the 36th Otago Foreign Policy School (Dark Horse Publishing Ltd, Wellington, 2002), pp129-38. See also three chapters from ed Grimes, Arthur, Lydia Wevers and Ginny Sullivan, States of Mind: Australia and New Zealand 1901-2001 (Institute of Policy Studies, Wellington, 2002): Behm, Allan, “Defence and Security Across the Tasman”, pp95-108; O’Brien, Terence, “Open Minds and Other States”, pp109-115; and Beath, Lance, “Imagination, Ambition Vision and Realism: Moving Forward in the Defence Relationship with Australia”, pp116-127

4. Ayson, Robert, “New Zealand, the United States and the Changing Balance in Asia”, Trilateral Dialogue, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, Lowy Institute, Sydney, 17 February, 2006; “Australia’s Defence Dilemmas”, Australian National University Blake Dawson Waldron Lecture 23 May 2006, published as “Understanding Australia’s Defence Dilemmas, in Security Challenges, vol 2 No 2, July 2006, pp25-42; “Converging Without a Trilateral ANZUS? Australia, New Zealand the US and the Regional Balance in Asia”, 2006 Fulbright Symposium, Maritime Governance and Security: Australian and American Perspectives, 28-29 June 2006; “The Australia-New Zealand Connection” draft chapter for ed Taylor, Brendan, Friendships in Flux? Australia as an Asia-Pacific Power (Routledge, London, forthcoming).

5., accessed 24 September 2006

6. In 1992 the conservative National party administration of Jim Bolger backed away from repealing the nuclear propulsion provisions even though it had a huge parliamentary majority and a scientific report that minimised the possible environmental danger from such warships.

7. “We’re following US lead: Rudd”, The Australian, 20 September 2006

8. “Same bed, different nightmares” was White’s lapidary answer to a question after delivering the above paper at the conference.

9. If Australia can pay to staff six battalions from a population 20 million and also run a significant high-technology air force and navy, New Zealand, were it spending pro rata, logically could fund at least two battalions from 4 million, if it is to settle for only a medium-technology support air force and navy. As it is, New Zealand draws heavily on reserves to staff its peacekeeping rotations and has very little, if anything, available for a new Solomons or new Timor.

10. New Zealand joined K-force in the early 1950s. Quite apart from any realistic assessment of the potential for success in Iraq, Clark was not prepared to join an invasion which had signally failed to get United Nations support but did send reconstruction troops when the United Nations did mandate that. Clark has, however, been prepared to join NATO-led operations, as in Afghanistan.

11. Beath (op cit, “Imagination, ambition, vision and realism”, p126): “The critical issue is … the effectiveness with which we can combine national components into a coalition force.”

12. This was in recognition of two other “firsts”, New Zealand having been the first country to sign a bilateral agreement on China’s admission to the World Trade Organisation and the first to recognise China’s market economy, and more generally in recognition of New Zealand’s independent foreign policy, which the Chinese Ambassador, Chen Ming Ming, praised at a conference in Wellington on 26 November 2003, organised to promote New Zealand opinion-leaders’ interest in Asia. Ambassador Chen noted that “New Zealand had been able to approach sensitive issues in the region with discretion and respect. It was not intrusive. Asian countries admired New Zealand’s willingness to speak out on critical and sometimes sensitive issues, knowing this might impose a cost on its interests in other fields.” (Unleashing the Energy of New Zealand’s Asian Links, final report of the Seriously Asia conference, Asia 200 Foundation, May 2004, p20).

13. For a more detailed description of this see Colin James, “The Pacific-ation of New Zealand”, speech to the Sydney Institute, 3 February 2005 ( published in ed Henderson, Anne, Sydney Papers, vol 17 issue 1 (Summer 2005), pp138-145, and other speeches and writings on

14. Terrill, Ross, “Taking the long view: China’s emerging great power role in the Asia-Pacific region”, Global Forces 2005, proceedings of the ASPI conference, day 2 – strategic change (Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Canberra, 2006), p33: “One speculates that twenty years hence Australia and China could be the two powers in the shadows as a tug of war goes on in the internal and external policies of certain weak South Pacific states.”

15. Ayson (op cit, “The Australia-New Zealand connection”) argues that “the difficult challenges of encouraging stability in a number of Melanesian states have concentrated minds in both Canberra and Wellington and helped energise the bilateral security relationship between them. To this extent at least, bad news in the immediate neighbourhood has been good news for Australia-New Zealand security relations.”

16. Goff, Hon Phil, “Transformation of a small defence force”, address at the National Defence University, Washington DC, 21 April 2006, p1.

17. Ayson (op cit, “The Australia-New Zealand connection”)