It should come as no surprise that US Deputy Secretary of State, Stephen Biegun, has finally said what has been on a lot of minds in our region. According to a report in the South China Morning Post this morning, Washington aims to formalise its closer Indo-Pacific defence relations with India, Japan and Australia – also known as “the quad” – into something more closely resembling the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Biegun went on to say that the group of four nations were expected to meet in Delhi sometime this autumn (NZ spring) and that Washington would like to see South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand eventually join an expanded version of the quad, citing the “very cooperative” meetings that the group of four had with officials from these countries about the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
And now, a blast from the past. “Although New Zealand has several standardisation and relationship based agreements, we have no functional mutual defence treaties that address all our regional and national interests. There is no country that has both the capability and interest in providing regional security in our region. ACT believes that we must form a new mutual defence treaty in the Asia-Pacific region based on similar lines to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Like NATO, we see an essential provision being that an attack on one is an attack on all.” This is extracted from the 2008 ACT Party International Relations and National Security policy which I co-wrote with Heather Roy in the lead-up to that election.
From Biegun this morning, “The Indo-Pacific region is actually lacking in strong multilateral structures,” he said. “They don’t have anything of the fortitude of NATO or the European Union. The strongest institutions in Asia oftentimes are, I think, not inclusive enough and so … there is certainly an invitation there at some point to formalise a structure like this. Remember even NATO started with relatively modest expectations and a number of countries [initially] chose neutrality over NATO membership.”
An idea that was scoffed at as ‘parallel universe thinking’ just got real.
This presents a dilemma for New Zealand which I have addressed in more recent articles on the subject. Is it in our interests to take up membership of an alliance which is being discussed openly as a way of countering perceived Chinese ‘adventurism’ in the Indo-Pacific region? Bear in mind that my original PATO concept was an inclusive one that would have seen China with a seat at the table; not on the outside forced to convene a Beijing version of the Warsaw Pact as happened in Eastern Europe in 1955.
Given current day politics and economic uncertainty, it is very likely that a New Zealand government would opt not to join such a Treaty leaving us, in mutual defence terms, in much the same place as we are with ANZUS – ‘Just in’. I believe the economic cost of confronting China would be deemed a price that was too high to pay by most politicians.
Enter the option of armed non-alignment or armed neutrality. I wrote an options paper in mid-2019 on the different national security postures that New Zealand could adopt. The full paper can be read at DivergentOptions.org
The less well informed may see this as partial disarmament or maintenance of a New Zealand Defence Force that was smaller and less well equipped than it is currently. However, this is not necessarily the case and would likely result in increased spending on national security capability rather than less. Would the Swiss model of national conscription work here? I doubt it but a voluntary national service system, linked with tertiary education and other benefits could. Some Australian commentators, like Prof John Blaxland, are also discussing versions of VNS at the moment.
This is an important conversation for New Zealand to be having. Unfortunately, pandemic response is swamping the daily newsfeed. That makes it all the more important for independent think tanks, journalists and commentators to keep the debate going.
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