The United States Secretary of Defense is visiting New Zealand just days after being appointed to the position. Mark Esper, who replaces former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine General James Mattis is on a five nation trip where conversations will most likely centre around Iran and China.
Whilst so early in the set, I cannot imagine Mr Esper immediately wanting concessions from New Zealand, I do not want New Zealand to be involved in another U.S. military misadventure. New Zealand might be – and should be – friends with the United States, but keeping a bit of distance. I am quite sure most New Zealanders want nothing to do with a potential war against Iran that will most likely achieve at best significantly worsening U.S relations with the Muslim world.
At best a war with Iran will be limited to the United States and Iran. The latter would probably use its considerable special forces to attack shipping in the Persian Gulf, and the Iranian backed militias might launch a rocket barrage at Israel. A greater fear is whether Russia decides to become involved or not. Russia could simply move military assets into Iran or Syria without actually using them as a warning to the United States. But Russian military commanders and politicians have at times made ominous references that a war against Iran would be a catastrophe. At worst it could result in a Russian military response against American forces – at which point a nuclear confrontation is not out of the question.
Perhaps more immediately problematic for New Zealand is China’s growing military assertiveness. It has built an artificial island in the Spratley Islands with an airfield and facilities for ships to dock at. China has since stationed military patrol and combat aircraft there. As vital shipping lanes pass through these waters on the way to/from various nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines, the United States has sought to dissuade China from further expansion.
China’s military expansion is dangerous because it is aligned with more subtle moves such as massive investment in countries around the world. Some critics argue China is literally buying up other nations by establishing Government owned companies that then set up operations in other countries and buy their way into major assets – in Westland recently a dairy company was sold to a Chinese Government controlled company.
New Zealand sees this in Fiji and other small Pasifika nations. A few months ago there was a controversy about a resort being built on Fiji and the destruction of large tracts of coral reef to enable boat access to the resort. When locals and New Zealand expatriates living there tried to remonstrate the owners got aggressive and there were scuffles. Other countries such as Tonga have significant debt to China, which has led to concerns about Beijing’s attempts to extract leverage. And in Vanuatu, although both countries denied reports, there were suggestions that China has been looking for a place to establish a military base.
Whilst New Zealand needs to be careful not to anger either the U.S. or China, it needs to be clear that the south Pacific is the chief domain of New Zealand and Australia. More than it does either of them, the well being of these little island nations is paramount to our well being.