New Zealand and the United States: why old news is good news
31 Oct 2013|

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is presented a jersey for the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby team by New Zealand Minister of Defense Jonathan Coleman during a joint press conference in the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on Oct. 28, 2013. Hagel and Coleman met earlier to discuss national and regional security items of interest to both nations. DoD photo by Erin Kirk-Cuomo. (Released)

If you read some of the media coverage of this week’s meeting between US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and New Zealand Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman, you might have thought that the two countries have just agreed to deepen their defence relationship. This news is at least a year too late, and that deepening process is by now well under way. Even so, the Hagel–Coleman press conference reflected the level of comfort both sides have about where their military relationship has got to, and what these two leading politicians didn’t mention is as important as what they spoke about.

I use the word ‘relationship’ here very deliberately, because that’s the word both Hagel and Coleman employed in speaking to the Washington media. The two ‘A’ words, Alliance and ANZUS, didn’t make an appearance in the way Hagel and Coleman spoke about the relationship. Nor did ‘A for Australia’. That’s significant: all three countries have valuable bilateral defence relations with each other but there’s little appetite anywhere, it seems, for a real trilateral emphasis. Australia is involved in some big triangles, especially the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD) with the US and Japan, but the renewed US–New Zealand relationship isn’t being sold that way.

That’s time for a sigh of relief in Wellington I expect. The TSD made headlines a few weeks ago for a joint statement that unwisely signalled a clear alignment with Tokyo in its East China Sea contest with Beijing. As I explained to a New Zealand newspaper audience, Australia may have done its close partner New Zealand no favour in signing up to that script. But in the statement coming out from the Hagel-Coleman meeting, the references to working together on Asia-Pacific security are so suitably generic, with a likeable focus on peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance, that no such parallel geopolitical message has been forthcoming.

That’s good news, because a year ago the broader regional dimension of US–NZ defence relations was raising some expectations which might have made it a bit challenging for Wellington. When he visited Hagel’s predecessor Leon Panetta a year ago, Dr Coleman came away from the United States with an important piece of paper called the Washington Declaration. This document uses alliance-style language in calling for deepening military cooperation between the two countries in the wider Asia-Pacific region, with a focus on maritime security. In a subsequent press conference with his then Australian counterpart Stephen Smith, Coleman said that the US and New Zealand had ‘really just put a bow around what we were already doing’.

That comment didn’t sit well with the ambitious language of the new agreement. But it works much better as a depiction of what the two countries were doing in Washington this week. The new areas of cooperation, including New Zealand’s participation in RIMPAC in 2014 and the fact that in doing so a New Zealand vessel can now be tied up in port in Hawaii just as other normal countries do, were already well known. US troops have already been training in New Zealand and vice versa, including in Dawn Blitz, the major amphibious exercise off the California coast, in which Japan’s prominent presence sent some foreign policy signals about the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands that might have been best avoided.

The next big exercise opportunity is in New Zealand’s South Island (Te Wai Pounamu). Exercise Southern Katipo will involve American forces alongside their counterparts from Australia and France (the other members of the Quads grouping along with New Zealand), as well as contributions from Singapore, Papua New Guinea and Tonga. Now the katipo is New Zealand’s indigenous poisonous spider, a relative of the Australian redback. I’m not sure what went into the naming of the exercise, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a sting in the tail from Dr Coleman’s Washington visit—at least nothing that will be raising questions in the wider neighbourhood.

Robert Ayson is on research leave from Victoria University of Wellington at the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Image courtesy of Secretary of Defense.