Stacey Kirk: Not the 'benign strategic environment' of old, the Defence Force targets sights closer to home

CAMERON BURNELL/FAIRFAX NZ.

Prime Minister John Key and Minister of Defence Gerry Brownlee release the defence white paper outlining future spending.

OPINION: Remember the time Helen Clark said New Zealand existed in a "benign strategic environment"? 

A lot has changed since 2001.

The Government released the long-awaited Defence White Paper this week, and with it comes a renewed focus on New Zealand's own back yard. 

The motivations of other countries and their new found interest in Antarctica have been labelled "less clear" by the ...
SUPPLIED

The motivations of other countries and their new found interest in Antarctica have been labelled "less clear" by the defence white paper. If it's not scientific research and conservation, then New Zealand has to play a part in looking out for these little guys - the Adelie Penguins, pictured at Commonwealth Bay.

It's not quite the shopping list of advanced warfare gadgets the Australian one was, and for that we should be thankful. 

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Thankful for a few reasons; things may be less benign than they were 15 years ago, but we're not in the same position as Australia when it comes to protecting our borders. Nor have we (so far) engaged in openly aggressive discussions with any of our neighbours.  

A Chinese Coast Guard ship (top) is seen near a Vietnam Marine Guard ship in the South China Sea, about 210km off the ...
REUTERS

A Chinese Coast Guard ship (top) is seen near a Vietnam Marine Guard ship in the South China Sea, about 210km off the Vietnam coast. From listening posts to jet fighter deployments and now surface-to-air missiles, China's expanding facilities in the Paracel Islands are a signal of long-term plans to strengthen its military reach across the disputed South China Sea.

And while there is a considerable lack of detail about what a colossal $20 billion spend is going to buy us, it's preferable to the Australian example, which has that Government already embroiled in controversy over the quality of deals entered into to spend billions of dollars on submarines. 

One would hope that would see our procurement process be placed under far more scrutiny. 

Despite its lack of technical detail however, the White Paper provides some interesting geo-political insights into where the Government sees its biggest threats. 

An RNZAF 757 sits on the Pegasus ice runway in Antarctica.
TIIMOTHY GILLBANKS

An RNZAF 757 sits on the Pegasus ice runway in Antarctica.

Where the 2010 White Paper was panned as a failure to protect New Zealand's exclusive economic zone, the latest dossier places New Zealand's strategic interests squarely in protecting the four million square kilometres of its surrounding waters. 

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It's about illegal encroachment into our fisheries - a serious economic threat, more than any perceived military threat. However, in the case of the South China Sea it's clear the two are intertwined. 

Defence White Papers aren't typically critical of other countries - like any public-record document.

What was perhaps more telling was John Key's diplomatic line of "not choosing a side", compared with Gerry Brownlee's bullish military-man persona, playing up the case for "freedom of navigation" through the contested shipping route, during the press conference to launch the white paper.  

Choosing a side however, between China and the US, may be exactly where China is hoping to nudge us.

Finally, the white paper made much hype of the need for capability to protect New Zealand's interests in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica. 

The number of national camps on the icy continent is increasing, and "while scientific research is a key focus for most countries, the motivations of others may be less clear". 

Intrinsic to exercising clout in protecting that region, is our ability to carry out meaningful scientific work and logistics support. Hence the need for a new ice-strengthened Offshore Patrol Vessel and an upgrade to the aging Air Force Hercules and 757s. 

So benign? Not anymore. 

As resources come under strain, the world is already turning its gaze southward - upgrading New Zealand's strategic environment to "challenged". 

 - Sunday Star Times

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