Defence white paper a sign of changing times: Part I


In this two part series I look at the new Defence White Paper which sets out the threats and opportunities New Zealand faces and how the Defence Force contributes to dealing with them. In this part, I examine the context of the White Paper.

During the Cold War, a defence white paper would have focussed on the threat of nuclear war posed by Russia and China. The threat posted to South Pacific islands would have been largely based on whether the former U.S.S.R. or China could gain a foothold there using Indonesia as a proxy (Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975 and the failure to condemn it still ranks as one of New Zealand’s biggest foreign policy fails).

Following the withdrawal from the A.N.Z.U.S. alliance, and the French bombing of the Rainbow Warrior a rapid reassessment of who our real allies are would have been undertaken. Australia were still our best ally, the British were friendly, whilst the United States and France were very much on the outer in terms of military co-operation. In terms of the South Pacific nations, respect for New Zealand soared.

33 years later the Chinese threat still exists, as much from military installations being established under the guise of military activity. Concerns over the influence of their telecommunications companies exists, with Huawei being subject to trading restrictions in the U.S. over whether their devices can steal information. Relations with Russia remain cordial – New Zealand does not feature so highly in Russia’s foreign policy estimates, which is reflected in our trading arrangements with Moscow.. The relations with France have largely healed without either side forgetting what happened in July 1985.

It is the South Pacific where things have changed the most. The Solomon Islands, which in 2003 was considered a failed state by the Government’s of New Zealand and Australia, was the subject of a combined mission to restore the rule of law. Whilst this has been successful and was wound up in 2017, there is a risk other nations such as Papua New Guinea may require such assistance in the future. A combination of corruption in the Government, weak economies, internal instability – some islands are virtually lawless make ideal situations for organized crime and possibly the facilitation of terrorist elements in the worst case scenario

Whilst New Zealand has identified potential risks in the Middle East, it is acknowledged that our influence is limited. Other than be an advocate for the rule of law there is not a lot New Zealand can really do. The real movement , a change of focus in foreign policy, has been to make the Pacific a top priority. This seeks to acknowledge the considerable risks of further destabilization, the influence of big power politics which have not in the past been very well received and New Zealand traditional role as a peace keeper, proponent of international law and human freedoms.

Now a third element – the environment – has been added. This acknowledges that many of New Zealand’s South Pacific neighbours haveĀ  a day-to-day struggle with the sea. Salinisation of the land means crops are failing. Parts of some very low lying nations such as Kiribati and Tuvalu are inundated twice daily with the tidal regime and flood completely in storms or even tropical depressions. Unless this is addressed, some of these places may be uninhabitable in a couple of decades, or become ungovernable, again creating a security risk.

New Zealand should keep itself at arms distance from U.S., Russia


A while ago Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stated that she thought the nuclear moment of our present time is climate change. She said it, stating that New Zealand needs to take a decisive leadership role in reducing our carbon emissions. An admirable thing and certainly something that needs to happen.

But it is not the nuclear moment of NOW. That is playing out in the Middle East and has the potential to become much more immediate than climate change, which – whilst affecting us already – does not (so far as I know)have the ability to usher in a global holocaust in a matter of ours. It does not have the ability to accidentally usher in a nuclear exchange before people even realize what is happening.

I honestly never thought, until about early 2014, when Russia began its military build up in Syria and started testing western resolve over Ukraine that the risk of an East-West military confrontation would revive in my life time. Whilst since 2000 the risk had certainly been growing from one year to the next, the immediacy of the danger was not there. It is now. And the causes of it are dubious to say the least.

Neither the United States or Russia are playing an entirely honest and responsible game in Syria. Both have agenda’s that are more about suiting their foreign policy ambitions than helping to end a bloody civil war that has gone on for much too long. Both have the power and the means to end it today, but the strangulation of their geopolitical objectives mean their peoples are captive to politicians being jerked around – willingly – by the military industrial complex. For this is not about Syria anymore, but about who will be the decisive power in the Middle East. This is about raw ambition.

Perhaps it is telling us something that Russia has used its veto power as one of the Permanent 5 in the United Nations Security Council to block 12 separate resolutions on Syria. Perhaps it is telling us something that none of the N.A.T.O. countries purportedly standing for the rule of international law attacked suspected chemical weapons sites before United Nations personnel could verify that that is what they actually were.

But also the danger level in this conflict brings the world as close to an international incident – an incident that could potentially trigger a nuclear exchange by accident – as any conflict during the First Cold War. An accidental attack by N.A.T.O. forces on Russia, or vice versa could very easily escalate into a world conflict. If it does not do that, at the very least it would result large scale deployment of N.A.T.O. and Russian forces including potential nuclear forces.

What the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters should be doing is telling our international partners in no uncertain terms we only abide by international law. If they want our cooperation, they need to abide by it too.

What New Zealand should be doing is four fold:

  1. Demanding all countries comply with international law – and telling them New Zealand will have no participation in anything judged to be against said law
  2. Demanding an immediate cessation to hostilities
  3. Letting United Nations inspectors in with unfettered access to all sites of concern in Syria
  4. Let Red Cross have unfettered access to all victims of war

Our nuclear moment I do not think is climate change. Our nuclear moment is stopping this war turning into a nuclear moment.

I know not what weapons World War 3 will be fought with, but World War 4 will be fought with sticks and stones

ALBERT EINSTEIN

Of trade deals and revived Cold War geopolitics


When New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters commented about trade with Russia earlier this week, there was mixed reaction. Our allies were surprised. Russia, probably grinning and the ordinary Jim and Jane wondering what just happened.

I wonder how many people born post-1989 would recognize that today we are in the midst of the very sort of Cold War geopolitical environment that our parents and grandparents found themselves living through. I wonder how many of the would realize how little it would take to cause an international incident that the whole world regrets. But above all, I wonder how much those in New Zealand who were spared the tensions of the Cold War, realize that just because they are nations that we have traditionally been good friends with does not automatically make Britain or the U.S. automatically right when they make a foreign policy decision.

Mr Peters highlighted the stark differences between New Zealands priorities and those of Britain. The New Zealand priorities which seem to be about securing trade agreements with European nation’s post-Brexit, include a potential deal with Russia, and another with the European Union.

Perhaps New Zealand is being a bit naive. The Russian Government is renown for it’s bullying tactics. It’s attempt at annexing Ukraine was a flagrant attempt at rebuilding the Russian empire of old, whilst also improving access to the Black Sea. Doing a free trade agreement with it sort of seeks to legitimise the activities of a country that violates international law as much as America does.

Whilst needing to be able to conduct trade with nation’s whose agendas and views are not compatible with New Zealand, it needs to be said that our values are too important to compromise for dollars. We were shocked when Russia carried out acts such as the attack on Alexander Litvinenko, and rightly so because the nature of the assassination was one that could only becarried out by someone in a very high position. We were shocked when Russia vetoed moves in the United NationsĀ  to condemn the use of gas on civilians in Aleppo. We have been surprised by the apparent use of a military grade agent last week against a spy and his daughter.

At some point no one should be surprised if there is push back against Russia for this conduct. Russia’s conduct in many respectsrhas been similar to that of the United States. The latter can be accused of invading nation’s and has times propped up dictators such as General Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, and turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabias war in Yemen.

New Zealand needs to ask itself this:

  1. Does it want to remain blindly supportive of America and Britain even when they are not always right?
  2. Does it want to be seen supporting a nation (Russia) that carries out horrifying assassinations, annexations and most probably supplied the missile system used to down Malaysian Airlines flight MH7?
  3. Pursue an independent foreign policy including trade agreements with whomever we see fit? And at the possible expense or delay of deals with traditional partners?

Whilst wanting Russia to understand it is not helping its own reputation to be carrying out such poison attacks, history is littered with evidence of the other side committing atrocitiesĀ  as well. When a weakened Prime Minister of Britain goes up against the nuclear power that is Russia and its leader says in a threatening voice not to threaten a nuclear power, who is prepared to continue with such a black and white threat?

Mr Peters and New Zealand First should learn from this.

Time for N.Z.D.F. to come clean about Afghanistan raid


In 2010, New Zealand Defence Force soldiers participated in an attack on an Afghanistan town called Tirgiran. During the exchange there were civilian casualties.

For months, those casualties were denied strenuously by the Chief of the Defence Force Major General Tim Keating, who said there were huge inaccuracies in Nicky Hager’s book Hit and Run, which alleges war crimes were committed by the N.Z.D.F. Now, in a u-turn yesterday, Major General Keating admitted that civilian deaths might have happened. Yet he continued to insist that the book is wrong.

I have in the past given the New Zealand Defence Force the benefit of the doubt, and considered the onus to be on Mr Hager to demonstrate otherwise. Whilst I still wonder if Mr Hager has a vendetta against the Defence Force, his claims have now received a major credibility boost.

It is time for Major General Keating to come clean as the person in charge on a day-to-day basis on what really happened in that raid in Afghanistan. To fail to do so is to undermine the credibility of his office, as well as every man and woman who serves in the Defence Force.

When New Zealand fights overseas, we might be under the command of a foreign power. In the case of Afghanistan the American command had jurisdiction over our forces. In East Timor, it was the Australians. It matters not who has control of the overall operation, but that New Zealand Defence Force ultimately answers to the New Zealand Government, who in turn must answer to the New Zealand people.

The New Zealand Defence Force needs to be aware that it should under NO circumstances EVER conduct practices of a tortuous nature, or operations of a nature that may break the international conventions this country is a signatory to. In the event that our personnel find themselves being asked to participate in such operations, the command making the request should be informed forthwith that New Zealand will only participate if it is fully compliant with the Geneva Conventions.

For a country that prides itself on respecting international law, this is hugely embarrassing. It potentially damages our reputation as being clean and responsible overseas. But this potential damage goes further than that. This potential damage potentially threatens New Zealand forces who go there in the future. It sends damaging and confusing signals to Afghanistan and Afghanis about what New Zealand wants to achieve there.

Major General Tim Keating did not achieve his current rank by bluffing his way through the ranks. It is not possible. One will be found out long before you get that far. Someone that far up the military hierarchy should be expected to know that New Zealand and New Zealanders have standards. He should be expected to know there are good historical reasons why we abhor torture and why we prefer a clean fair fight to one with dirty underhand tactics. In getting to this position, Major General Keating indicates that he is aware of these expectations and intends to uphold them.

So why did New Zealand not do this? Why are one of the finest small defence forces in the world starring down a major credibility crisis because of an operation in Afghanistan of a questionable nature in 2010. The Defence Force and in particular Major General Keating need to come totally clean about this now, or resign.

Keeping super power influence in check in South Pacific


Yesterday on the Q+A programme Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters raised the issue that Chinese influence in the South Pacific is going to be a significant concern of this Government’s foreign policy. The remarks, which come at the start of a week long tour of the South Pacific where Mr Peters and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. will meet Pacific leaders, come against a backdrop of growing Chinese influence in a year where Chinese President Xi Jinping appears intent on becoming a 21st Century emperor.

China has been expanding its interest in the South Pacific for years. It has turned a blind eye to the Frank Bainimarama regime of Fiji committing human rights abuses against Fijians. In return for such activities being ignored, South Pacific nations have permitted Chinese mining and forestry companies to set up businesses on their lands. One might ask what the problem with this is?

Simple. These island nations will not see the economic benefits. They might be employed to work on building the roads, but there is unlikely to be any sharing of the royalties taken from the business. It also remains to be seen how much tax if any that the Chinese companies will be made to pay to their Governments so they can provide basic services for their people.

It is not to say that Western companies are any better. The Ok Tedi mine where tonnes of pure copper sulphate solution was allowed to pour straight into the local river, completely destroying the ecosystem is one example of a mine project gone bad in Papua New Guinea. The company responsible was B.H.P. Billiton. Whilst litigation of the case happened and resulted in a $29 million pay out in the 1990’s the environmental, economic and social costs of the damage will take an estimated 300 years to fix.

These countries have very weak legal systems, and endemic corruption at all levels. Because of this, several South Pacific Island nations are potentially at risk of becoming failed states with governance that simply does not work properly any more. The corruption means that there is a risk that organized crime or militants linked to terrorist groups might use these nations as a back door into Australia and New Zealand.

All nations are quite vulnerable to climate change and the outlying parts of Kiribati, Tuvalu, Niue are at risk of becoming uninhabitable in the next 50 years. Over fishing and deforestation are also likely to impact on their economies.

This is where New Zealand and Australia become very important players. As the regional powers with the means to influence the United States and China, both nations have an obligation to look after their smaller Pacific Island neighbours and act as role models in terms of how their governance should be in an ideal world. Right now neither nation is doing a particularly good job of this – following the Papua New Guinea earthquake last week, Australia has so far only just begun to move relief supplies in; New Zealand to the best of my knowledge has not yet done anything at all.

Mr Peters will also be well aware of the growing influence of the United States on Australia. Mr Trump, who is unlikely to be received by South Pacific island leaders strongly denies climate change, which many cite as a key problem for them. Instead, Mr Trump seems more in the sphere of influence that Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull promotes. Mr Turnbull’s Government has shown open skepticism of climate change, and both view China as a common problem. In “making America great again” by promoting policies that put America first Mr Trump seems to be putting America on a collision course with China.

Thus far the South Pacific island nations have not featured strongly on Mr Trump’s agenda. How long that is the case remains to be seen. Should Mr Trump become fixated on these little nations, the other question is context.