The incredible shrinking ANZAC alliance
5 Dec 2012|

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key

It’s the lot of smaller countries to fret over how seriously their interests are treated by bigger allies. It’s not surprising then that Robert Ayson worries about what New Zealand has to do to stay on Canberra’s radar screen. There’s good reason for Wellington to be concerned, because Australia’s strategic focus increasingly looks north. Limited resources for defence engagement after the 2013 White Paper will be ear-marked mostly for countries like Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, rather than New Zealand. But the chill wind from Canberra hasn’t just been blowing since the global financial crisis. What Australian governments have said about New Zealand in previous defence white papers, allows us to chart the steady diminution of the importance of the ANZAC relationship in Australian thinking. Here are all the Australian white paper comments on New Zealand since 1976, with fuller excerpts here (PDF). The key phrases read like a series of scenes from that great B-grade Hollywood movie, The Incredible Shrinking Man:

1976: ‘Defence cooperation with New Zealand is fundamental to our interests …’

1987: 'Australia and New Zealand share a defence relationship which is of basic importance to the security of both countries …’

1994: ‘ … our defence alliance with New Zealand remains important to Australia's defence policy.’

2000: ‘… our defence relationship with New Zealand shows the imprint both of our strong similarities and of the sometimes surprising differences between us.’

2009: ‘ … from a strategic point of view what matters most is that they are not a source of threat to Australia.’

The last quote bundles New Zealand with Indonesia, PNG, East Timor and the Pacific Islands: from key ally to alley cat in one generation?

Well, that would be too harsh a judgement. New Zealand remains an important partner for Australia, a valuable force multiplier for ADF capability, a major player in its own right in the South Pacific and a steady and constructive participant in international coalition operations. But, if one reads the Joint Statement issued by Ministers’ Stephen Smith and Jonathan Coleman in Perth last month, it’s obvious that bilateral defence cooperation is lacking any serious momentum. Some exchanges of navy personnel; NZ observers at Talisman Sabre; a few civilian secondments; a promise to collaborate without any detail on Pacific maritime security—these are worthy but timid steps that do nothing to harness the potential of the relationship.

My diagnosis is that the ANZAC relationship has become bogged in its own cosy comfort zone. It’s easy for Ministers and Defence organisations to celebrate the history of the alliance but much harder for them to push into new areas of cooperation that challenge existing processes and power structures on both sides of the Tasman. The possibility of closer defence integration has been floating just beyond reach since the early 1990s. But it will never happen unless governments direct their defence organisations to work in very different ways on joint contingency planning, on sharing and dividing responsibilities for capabilities and on forcing the ADF and NZDF into a closer partnership.

Notwithstanding the usual rhetoric about the closeness of the relationship, some in New Zealand would prefer not to get that much closer to Australia. They’d argue that New Zealand benefits more by preserving its autonomy than by making itself second fiddle in the Australian orchestra. In fact, Australia benefits from New Zealand maintaining a strong and separate voice in the international community—it’s never has been the case that closer defence cooperation means that New Zealand loses independence. But for New Zealand there’s no status quo option in defence cooperation with Australia. The choice is to continue on the path of the incredible shrinking relationship or else try to pull out of the comfort zone and call for more from the alliance.

Wellington’s first move should be to demand more of a role in the construction of Australia’s next defence white paper. New Zealanders shouldn’t be comfortable with the thought that Jakarta is being more deeply consulted than they are. But such access will also bring higher Australian expectations about what New Zealand brings to the table. If the Americans are talking tough with Australia on defence spending, we should be doing the same with New Zealand. Both countries have a right to expect more of the other. It’s time to get serious about making a more solid effort in the Pacific on maritime security and in investing in comprehensive measures, rather than token exchanges between Service personal and Defence civilians.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image of NZ Prime Minister John Key courtesy of Flickr user nznationalparty.