Over these last few days, I have been following the case of the illegal fishing operation in the Ross Dependency, which is administered by New Zealand. A Royal New Zealand Navy ship H.M.N.Z.S. Wellington is trying to get two trawlers under the flag of Equatorial Guinea to allow them to board. As the stand off continues, calls have been growing for the Navy to either sink the ship, confiscate it on the spot or tow it back to N.Z. And as I have been following it, I cannot help but think of the slow yet steady decline of the N.Z. Defence Force, the lack of willingness to show some spine in cases like this, and what other nations are thinking.
For me, observation of the Defence Force’s decline in capacity started in the mid 1990’s when National closed Wigram Airforce Base on the outskirts of Christchurch. The land on which the base sits has since been back to Ngai Tahu, the Iwi whose ancestral lands cover about 97% of the South Island. Aside from being short sighted in terms of where the Airforce could operate from, it deprived Christchurch of a potential second airport. A Defence Force white paper in 1997 suggested that defence spending needed to be about 2% per annum, and made a range of suggestions for the military, including new light armoured vehicles, new combat jets to replace the aging A-4 Skyhawks and a third frigate for the Navy. The Labour Government of Helen Clark only accepted the need for the army to have new vehicles, electing to scrap the air combat wing and buy patrol boats for the Navy.
In the early 1990’s in my first real attempt to understand geopolitics I was concerned that National might undo the good work of the Labour Government led by David Lange, who had banned nuclear powered/armed ships from N.Z. waters. Whilst New Zealand/Australian relations remained good, N.Z./U.S. relations nose dived. At the same time Greenpeace was gathering much support for its anti-nuclear testing protests off the coast from Mururoa Atoll where France was actively conducting tests. In retaliation the French had bombed the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior, hoping that it would divide the country.
As the South Pacific is not the stable, peaceful area that many people think it is – coups in Fiji, lawlessness in the Solomon Islands, systemic corruption – with China and the United States vying for attention amongst nations, New Zealand is quite right to be less interested in the wars in the Middle East or the so called War on Terrorism (which in many respects is turning into a war on human rights). Our backyard is the South Pacific, and the well being of these nations is essential to our national security. Building up legal systems and encouraging democracy cannot be done with guns, but things such as intervening in conflicts, enforcing international law is something only New Zealand and Australia have the military capacity to do in the South Pacific as regional nations are too small, both in terms of population and defence budgets to do so themselves.
Alas, although we maintain the best of relations with Australia, who are more like family than allies, the reality is they are more and more drifting into the sphere of the United States. More and more the U.S., like China sees the South Pacific as a resource rich area than the backyard of an ally (Australia)and a close friend (New Zealand). And yet the Defence Force continues to decline. I hope the Government is not thinking may “God Defend New Zealand” because we cannot be bothered. But more and more I wonder if they are.