The Ukraine war, the PRC’s rise, and how New Zealand’s defence and security policies may need to change

The Cold War’s end and the rise of globalisation meant New Zealand rapidly adapted to a more benign world and spent little on defence. 

Our navy and air force are now largely for logistical support and surveillance, and we have no tanks, jet aircraft or heavy artillery.  In contrast, the share of GDP Australia spends on defence is larger than that for most developed economies, including in the Asia-Pacific.  Australia has among the latest military equipment and has a significant defence industry.  It is investing in robot jet aircraft and in nuclear submarines.  No doubt Australia considers that New Zealand free-rides on its defence expenditure, and this suggests future pressure on us to carry more of the Australasian defence burden.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to NATO committing to increased defence spending. However, NATO so far has done barely enough to keep Ukraine in the fight, let alone to restore its borders as they were on 23 February 2022.  A decisive NATO-supported Ukrainian victory is needed for NATO to be credible in Europe in future.

There are risks with NATO “scope creep”.  The June 2022 NATO Madrid Summit Declaration included a strong challenge to Russian aggression – this is core NATO business.  However, the Declaration also referred to “systemic competition from those, including the People’s Republic of China, who challenge our interests, security, and values and seek to undermine the rules-based international order.”   

NATO needs to focus on Europe and the North Atlantic.  Other western defence arrangements can be designed to deal with specific challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.  These challenges include upholding the freedom of navigation that supports trade, and protecting nation-state sovereignty.  However, this can lead to aggressive brinkmanship, can be wrongly interpreted, or can simply cause accidents due to ships or aircraft coming too close together and colliding.

An analogy from history might argue that the 1915 Gallipoli expedition began in a principled way as more of a cultural mission than a militarily aggressive adventure.  The intent was for three peaceful emissaries from Britain, Australia and New Zealand to sail through the Dardanelles in support of the principles of freedom of navigation and freedom of association.  It was thought prudent to provide a small body guard for these three cultural ambassadors, however some military genius in London decided that this “small body guard” should be 15 battleships and 50,000 soldiers, thus setting the stage for a military debacle.

The above paragraph, far from nonsensicality, accurately reflects not literal historical facts but how military and political minds can become unhinged enough from reality to lead to catastrophe.  Vladimir Putin stating that Ukraine does not exist!  With 100,000 Russian soldiers and thousands of tanks, trucks and artillery guns deep inside Ukraine Putin’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirms that Ukraine exists and then says that Russia hasn’t invaded it!  

The assumption seems to be that because defence expenditures are soaring in Europe they have to soar in the Asia-Pacific.  This means New Zealand must decide on who its enemies are and spend more to counter them – unless of course we conclude that, while we have differences with some countries, we have no real enemies.

Of course, there are big security issues in the Asia-Pacific, including North Korea’s nuclear arms programme, Taiwan’s status, and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.  The PRC is becoming more assertive and in some cases belligerent, however the historical context matters.  Western countries humiliated China when she was weak, and Japan’s aggression from the 1930s cost millions of Chinese lives.  China resents other nations trying to box her in and reduce her options. 

Deng Xiaoping’s reforms from the late 1970s on have seen the PRC move from poverty to become the second biggest economy in the world in GDP terms, and possibly the biggest if measured through PPP measures.  This economic growth and wealth creation has come from the private sector more so than from the government.  However, the PRC government has balanced authoritarianism with innovation, has cracked down on corruption, and has fostered scientific and technological capabilities ranking with the best in the world in most fields.

New Zealand moved fast and adeptly in developing trade relationships with China and we have benefited enormously.  However, as Chris Trotter recently noted, from 2017 – 2022 New Zealanders’ opinion of China has deteriorated markedly.  The Asia New Zealand Foundation in June 2022 reported that the number of Kiwis who view China as a “friend” has fallen from 62 percent in 2017, to just 13 percent last month.  Meanwhile, the number viewing the PRC as a “threat” rose from 18 to 58 percent.  Trotter attributed this shift largely to an American-led campaign to demonise and isolate China.  He highlighted the economic risks if we alienated the PRC through too close association with a confrontational US line.

New Zealand’s economy is based on a small commodity export mix with one dominant buyer (China).  China does not share our democratic values, however it shares our market ones, and this may be where our efforts should focus.

Some western countries have challenged the PRC over its internal affairs.  Many of these issues fall outside New Zealand’s expertise and therefore we cannot offer an informed opinion.  In such cases it may be best for New Zealand spokespeople to stay silent and appear to be fools rather than opine on a subject and remove all doubt.

For example, it is unclear what if any stance New Zealand should take in relation to the Uighur people that make up the largest ethnic minority in the Xinjiang region.  Claims of genocide are nonsense.  Civil liberties as we conceive of them have been breached, but what do we know about the problems the PRC is trying to solve, and what are the counterfactual scenarios? 

How can New Zealand’s government criticise, for example, the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong while at the same time pushing the undemocratic and racialist proposals for constitutional change set out in the He Puapua document?

Rethinking our defence and security policies must start with affirming what is good about them.  Rightly we chose to ban nuclear weapons in the 1980s.  In explaining to angry allies such as the United States and Britain why we went our own way we were blessed with a silver-tongued Prime Minister David Lange who loved the English language and could charm the birds out of the trees.  At an Oxford Union debate televised globally he brushed aside a naïve student’s pro-nuclear argument by saying “I can smell the uranium on your breath.”  Sometimes his passion for language led to a tempest of words where the meaning was so cloaked in metaphor, allusion, symbolism, literary references and sometimes straight out jokes that the US State Department employed linguists to try and understand what he was talking about.

We also declined to participate in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  A fundamental principle is New Zealand should never go to war to win trade, market access or other such economic advantages. 

In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 the US called for “a coalition of willing” countries to participate.  Australia’s willingness was motivated by trade advantages.  I vividly recall sitting in Minister Jim Sutton’s office at the time and feeling great pride when my Minister said: “the day we go to war to secure a trade advantage is the day I leave politics.” 

Australia did achieve some trade gains in return for its participation in the Iraq invasion.  However, Australia’s uncritical adherence to the US’s stance on so many issues harmed its relations with the PRC.  It may also have contributed to PRC sanctions on Australia in 2021.

What is New Zealand as a country, what do we stand for, and what are we prepared to fight for?  New Zealand is a “western democracy”, a term which loosely describes societies with shared values rather than a shared geographic region.  Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are as much western democracies as Britain, Sweden, Ukraine and Canada.  

A democracy has a one person, one vote system, with all votes being equal.  Democracy is based on individual equal rights, freedom of speech, of sexual preference, of religious, political and other beliefs, property rights protection, and privacy. 

Democracy flourishes in open not closed societies, and so an independent and critical media is needed.  In some countries, the media can be censored, told to promote a particular “party line”, or banned from using certain terms.  Investigative journalists who probe too deep can, as in Russia, be bullied, exiled, poisoned or shot.

New Zealand’s Nicky Hager has for decades held our military to account for inept and dishonest behaviour in, for example, Afghanistan.  He has also documented the inordinate time our frigates have been engaged in Middle Eastern operations rather than resource protection in the Pacific.

However, media freedoms are rapidly eroding in New Zealand.  The Public Interest Journalism Fund restricts its funding to media outlets that conform to a highly politicised interpretation of a Treaty entered into between the Crown and Māori in 1840!

Democracy requires the rule of law both domestically and internationally.  Domestic law can be so loosely drafted that its interpretation can be arbitrary and capricious.  New Zealand must work hard to support the rule of law, not the rule of those who interpret that law.

Western as well as authoritarian regimes have undermined international law.  The American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was of doubtful legality, and it made possible ISIS’s emergence.  The invasion also violated a long-standing principle that western democracies never attack first, yet they do defend themselves when attacked.

Strong populist politicians can do a lot of damage to democracies.  The United States has yet to fully recover from Donald Trump.  Viktor Orbán has almost single-handedly undermined Hungary’s democratic system by curtailing press freedom, eroding judicial independence and undermining multiparty democracy.  

An important international issue is whether to have formal relations with countries, or with the governments in those countries.  The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances of December 5, 1994 saw the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom committing to uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty in return for Ukraine transferring its nuclear weapons to Russia.  However, when Russia breached this agreement in the 2014 annexation of Crimea it argued that it signed the Budapest Memorandum with a different government, not with the current Ukrainian government it considers “illegitimate”. 

Of course, this argument does not stand up to analysis.  International agreements are entered into by countries and not by governments.  Russia has no respect for international law and Ukraine could not enforce the  Budapest Memorandum in the UN or a law court – it has had to fight to survive.

As the PRC becomes stronger and more assertive in the Asia-Pacific region new risks may arise that New Zealand cannot “assume away”.

Tiny Pacific micro-states can be independent, sovereign countries only in the best of times, and even then they need substantial assistance in economic development, disaster relief, defence and security.  They are now facing existential climate change risk. 

The PRC has the biggest fishing fleet in the world and this fleet’s operations are likely to be environmentally unsustainable.  Its fishing fleet behaves at times like a floating imperialist militia which can occupy some tiny atolls or outcrops and then be very hard to shift.  

The PRC offers developmental finance to cash-strapped island mini-states, however this can lead to “debt entrapment” and compromise sovereignty.

New Zealand needs to be on good terms with the United States as well as the PRC and Australia.  New Zealand will be pressured into increased defence and security investment.  However, there may be ways to mitigate the net economic costs.  For example, an enhanced contribution might include strategic technologies that have dual civilian and military applications.  Examples of such technologies in other countries include cybersecurity skills, Finland’s 5G capabilities, Taiwan’s semiconductor industry and Turkey’s drone technology. 

The Ukraine war has triggered a massive energy crisis in Europe.  New Zealand could set itself a goal of being a world leader in managing renewable energy intermittency and storage challenges.  This would constitute a strategic defence capability as well as contributing to economic growth and environmental sustainability.

New Zealand has a huge technical continental shelf, however it has put little effort into exploring for rare earths and other metals and minerals needed for advanced technologies used in civil as well as military applications.  Understanding our continental geological resources and investment in materials science needed to exploit them would contribute to security as well as economic objectives.  

New Zealand could contribute research in support of ambitious Australian projects such as the loyal wingman air force project.  Surveillance drones for the EEZ and beyond would be within our technological capability.  Cybersecurity and AI are dual purpose technologies that could support New Zealand knowledge-intensive businesses competing in international markets

The Ukraine war has changed things fundamentally and reinforced realities that some of us have denied.  Nuclear-armed countries do not get attacked.  Independently-minded countries such as Finland and Sweden have joined NATO because they are not strong enough to stand alone. 

If New Zealanders conclude that we are too small to be a viable nation state that stands alone it can consider radical constitutional and other such options.  Australia’s constitution includes provision for New Zealand to become a state within Australia.  The two countries are already quite integrated economically, and at some stage a full merger might be in both countries’ interests.  It may even be seen by one or even both countries as a condition of surviving existential risk.

About Peter Winsley

I’ve worked in policy and economics-related fields in New Zealand for many years. With qualifications and publications in economics, management and literature, I take a multidisciplinary perspective to how people’s lives can be enhanced. I love nature, literature, music, tramping, boating and my family.
This entry was posted in Constitutional and Treaty of Waitangi issues, Economics, Maori, Politics, Russia, Science and innovation. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Ukraine war, the PRC’s rise, and how New Zealand’s defence and security policies may need to change

  1. David Lillis says:

    Another excellent commentary from Peter.
    It does seem a pity that Three Waters, He Puapua etc are causing political damage to Jacinda Ardern. She seems well-intentioned in wanting to empower Maori but it’s all backfiring badly. I am against these things too because they are undemocratic but quite like Jacinda as a human being. David Lillis

  2. Ra Henare says:

    Rather Jingoistic about NATO ?

    NATO so far has done barely enough to keep Ukraine in the fight, let alone to restore its borders as they were on 23 February 2022. A decisive NATO-supported Ukrainian victory is needed for NATO to be credible in Europe in future.

    I think you will find by some in-depth research of a non Biased (ie excluding Ukraine/US/NATO propaganda) that the Ukraine/Russian conflict will not be solved on the battlefield. The US lead proxy war with Russia will only lead to yet more destruction of Ukrainian territory and losses of tens of thousands of lives.
    It has been estimated by one creditable observer that every $100 Million of “”foreign”” aid will cost 30-40,000 Ukrainian lives plus untold fatalities amongst Russian Troops.

    I recommend to you such items as

    or anything by John Mearsheimer

    As John Pilger explains
    This is a war of Propaganda

    Contrary to your statement
    Independently-minded countries such as Finland and Sweden have joined NATO because they are not strong enough to stand alone.
    Fact Check. Finland and Sweden have not joined NATO at this point.

    Peter, the older I get the more skeptical I get of any reports which are overwhelmingly one sided. ergo the Ukrainian reports, as well as the Maorification of NZ Society

  3. Ra Henare says:

    I always find it interesting that you do not allow my comments.
    Is it because you dont like the content -I am presuming the reason
    or you don’t respond to comments after 24 hours?

    • Peter Winsley says:

      Hi Ra

      My humblest apologies if I have overlooked your comments. This reflects my sloppy administration not the quality of your input. We agree on some things but not all, which is healthy.

      I agree it is difficult to get truly unbiased analysis on many issues. The other half of my family are Russian with some Ukrainian blood so I’m able to access wide perspectives. The Ukrainian conflict is a terrible tragedy and while there is fault on all sides Mr Putin ultimately made the decision to invade. He was provoked over the decades by US arrogance I accept,

      Look forward to your further input.


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