In recent years, New Zealand has massively increased its defense budget and strengthened military ties to the US to ward off what hawks see as Chinese aggression. These moves have only worsened relations between the West and China.

A P-3K Orion takes off at the 2017 Air Tattoo at Royal New Zealand Air Force Base Ohakea on February 25, 2017 in Ohakea, New Zealand. (Kerry Marshall / Getty Images)

One of New Zealand Defence Force’s (NZDF) new Boeing P-8A Poseidons landed in the country last December, with three more due to arrive from the United States later this year. The four planes, along with two flight simulators and upgrades to the Ōhakea air force base necessary to house them, cost the antipodean nation NZ$2.3 billion, excluding millions of dollars in future upgrades, which the military will have to carry out every two to three years.

This spending forms part of the Labour government’s “historic” NZ$4.5 billion expenditure on new military equipment and projects. Not covered by this windfall are funds for adequate pay and housing for military personnel. Instead, the multibillion dollar budget will pay for five new C-130J Super Hercules aircraft and forty-three Bushmaster vehicles on top of the already-mentioned Poseidons, taking New Zealand’s defense spending as of 2022 from 1.15 to 1.59 percent of GDP, an increase of 38 percent but still below the 2 percent expectation which NATO has set for its members.

The increase will not stop there: according to the Defence Capability Plan 2019, New Zealand will spend a total of NZ$20 billion on “capital investment” between 2016 and 2030. But will this military buildup make New Zealanders safer?

Safety was Minister of Defence Peeni Henare’s focus when he announced the delivery of the first Poseidon, listing “maritime surveillance, resource protection, natural disaster support and search and rescue operations” as the plane’s core capabilities. But to move beyond this PR and consider how the planes are more likely to be used, it is instructive to consider the use to which the military has put their aging predecessors, the Orions.

According to the 2001 Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Maritime Patrol Review — the most recent comprehensive publication focusing on these issues — Orions conducted surveillance of local waters for between 2 and 3 percent of each year. Civil aircraft and vessels carried out 99 percent of marine rescues as part of the Coastguard Federation and other local groups. Of these rescue efforts, the majority were done voluntarily.

If the government was genuinely interested in improving on the NZDF’s poor record of maritime surveillance, it could have purchased, as former Greens MP Keith Locke pointed out, “four high-tech surveillance planes, without the anti-submarine capacity, at a fraction of the cost.” Such criticism, however, apparently misses the point: the planes are really “an advanced weapon,” according to David Capie, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University, designed for “high-end . . . anti-submarine warfare.”

A key feature of the Poseidons is their “ability to work with partners,” including other members of the US-led Five Eyes alliance, a joint-surveillance group comprised of the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK. Confirming this view, the Defence Policy Statement 2018 advises that “most deployments will be undertaken alongside other Government agencies and international partners.”

The intended use of the planes is less about protecting New Zealand’s interests and more about advancing those of the United States, namely preventing China from challenging the world’s largest economy’s status as the global hegemon. This anti-China focus is stated baldly in the Defence Assessment 2021. Before acknowledging that New Zealand “does not yet face a direct military threat” and that such a threat would “almost certainly only emerge in the context of a major war,” the Ministry of Defence irrationally advocates for a shift toward a “more deliberate and proactive strategy” that aims to “pre-empt and prevent security threats.”

This strategy is consistent with the United States’ ambition to surround China, in the words of the political scientist Michael T. Klare, with a “potentially suffocating network of US bases, military forces, and increasingly militarized partner states.” Unbothered by the possibility of ramping up geopolitical tensions between nuclear powers, the ministry calmly describes the United States in its report as a “critical defense partner” that “has long underwritten security in the Indo-Pacific.” The United States’ interventions in the region, from its brutal war in Vietnam to its support for violent anti-communist governments in Cambodia and Laos, clearly do not figure in the defense ministry hagiography of the nation.

Particularly worrying for New Zealand, the report tells us, is the militarization of the South China Sea and other actions that are “inconsistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” But after voicing this concern for international law, the ministry omits the fact that the United States, New Zealand’s critical defense partner, is not even a signatory to the treaty. Then again, nor is the United States a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), having legislated to invade the Netherlands, where the ICC is located, if any attempt is made to hold an American to account for war crimes.

Those people not wearing rose-tinted glasses might then reasonably question how the Poseidons purchase to support US anti-China policies will increase security in the South Pacific. Here, again, it is instructive to start with the Orions, which, according to Nicky Hager in Other People’s Wars, contradicted the prime minister’s explicit orders to remain separate from the US-led invasion of Iraq, and instead collected intelligence to protect the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz as its jets launched attacks from the Persian Gulf.

New Zealand’s participation in this war, described in a 2006 National Intelligence Estimate report as a “‘cause celebre’ for jihadists,” contributed to the growth of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. This conflict, Scott Horton explains in Enough Already, spread to neighboring Syria, as newly radicalized fighters crossed the border and received CIA support under the Timber Sycamore program, which funneled billions of dollars, as well as weapons and training, to Al-Qaeda–linked groups like Jabhat al-Nusra to co-opt the Syrian Arab Spring protest movement and fight against President Bashar Al-Assad — a strategy that Jake Sullivan, now President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, summed up when he told Hillary Clinton in an email that “AQ is on our side in Syria.” New Zealand has also helped to prolong the ongoing civil war in Syria by voting against a Russian-drafted UN Security Council resolution aimed at preventing material and financial support from reaching groups linked to Al-Qaeda.

Recent history suggests that supporting US militarism will not make anyone safer. In fact, tensions are already escalating following other Five Eyes members’ provocations of China. In May last year, for example, a Chinese J-16 fighter intercepted an Australian Defence Force Poseidon in the South China Sea region, seriously endangering crew (an Australian Poseidon, equipped with anti-ship missiles, responded similarly when two Chinese warships sailed east through the Arafura Sea, north of Australia).

As an indication that New Zealand’s new planes will not be exempt from intercepts in this increasingly tense environment, the reporter George Block recently revealed that intercepts of the NZDF’s Orion missions in the Middle East and East Asia have become more frequent. There were no reported intercepts between 2008 and 2011, but between 2015 and 2022 there were ninety-two intercepts in 234 missions. These flights often antagonize target countries with, according to Block, “the aim of seeing whether an intercept will occur,” a tactic that invites comparisons to Victoria Cross recipient Willie Apiata’s famous battle in Afghanistan, which began after the New Zealand Special Air Service followed the US special forces’ strategy of moving into a hostile area to “draw out” an attack.

New Zealand’s new Poseidons, and its recent military buildup more generally, are creating a vicious cycle within the NZDF, in which attempts to respond to perceived threats have the effect of creating threats. The weapons will not improve security in the Pacific; rather, as the Ministry of Defence recognizes, they will “raise the risks of tactical miscalculation leading to unintended conflict” and “increase the costs should conflict occur.”

This is, of course, not to suggest that China is beyond reproach. Its threats against Taiwan and suppression of the Uyghurs are rightly condemned by the international community. The protections of international law against militarily aggressive nations (as New Zealand’s participation in the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam amply demonstrates) are limited. But the alternative — increasingly militarized alliances, which raise the likelihood of armed conflict between the United States and China and the possibility of nuclear war — is hardly attractive.

Secretary of Defence Andrew Bridgman accepts this position in the Defence Assessment 2021 when he writes that “we must never ‘will’ the worst to happen. In fulfilling its purpose to protect New Zealand’s interests, Defence must above all else have as its objective the pursuit of peace and peaceful ways to prevent, or where necessary to resolve, conflict.” These are sensible suggestions. If only New Zealand’s political establishment were to heed them.

Original post


We’d love to keep you updated with the latest news 😎

We don’t spam!

Leave a Reply

We use cookies

Cookies help us deliver the best experience on our website. By using our website, you agree to the use of cookies.

Thank you for your Subscription

Subscribe to our Newsletter