WikiLeaks cable: NZ's acceptance of US defence proposal

Photo / Mark Mitchell
Photo / Mark Mitchell

This is one of the diplomatic cables about New Zealand held by Wikileaks.

17 February 2006
Ambassador Bill McCormick
On NZ's acceptance of a US proposal on defence engagement

Summary: DCM contacted MFAT to express once again our concern at New Zealand's continuing delay in formally accepted the proposed U.S. streamlining of our mil-mil relationship. On February 21, MFAT responded with a non-paper formally welcoming the U.S. proposal, and promising that NZ Ambassador Ferguson would call on DASD James Clad shortly to provide additional detail. The New Zealand response emphasized that it is committed to avoiding publicity and it remains concerned that the high ""ops tempo"" of its military may make it difficult for them to expand their activities. Clearly NZ domestic political sensitivities could make it increasingly difficult to consider any high-profile bilateral activities; this limitation could actually help give both sides the space to build patterns of operational cooperation out of public and political view. End summary.

U.S. Discomfort at NZ Delay

2. (C/N) On February 20, I spoke to Deputy Secretary John MacArthur of New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) about the importance the U.S. side attaches to receiving GNZ acceptance of the change in our mil-mil relationship we first proposed in October, 2007. It has become clear that the problem is no longer, to the extent it ever was, getting a paper through the PM's in-box. John MacArthur referred repeatedly to the need to complete "the process" of developing New Zealand's response. I noted with John and later with Carl Worker, MFAT Americas Division Director, that U.S. internal discussions in preparation for the AUSMIN had raised to senior levels awareness of New Zealand's continued nonresponse. I suggested that this risked tarnishing what should be a real positive for the relationship. They both acknowledged this point with some discomfort. Clearly they would have liked to see things move more quickly. I made it clear that now is the time to provide an answer and dispel any concerns at senior levels of the USG. They promised to do what they could to provide a response before the AUSMIN.

3. (C/N) DCM was called back to MFAT Thursday afternoon, February 21, to meet with John MacArthur and Carl Worker and receive the following response to the paper DASD James Clad presented to the New Zealand Embassy on October 25, 2007. DCM was told that this response had been cleared with MFAT CEO Simon Murdoch, who is currently in Canberra, and therefore represents an official response. Ambassador Roy Ferguson has been back in Wellington for consultations during the last week and will be conveying New Zealand's response to the US advice of the outcome of its "internal review of defense and security policy with New Zealand" on return to Washington next week.

In response to the US request for guidance ahead of the AUSMIN meeting this weekend, we are pleased to convey the key points of the response that the Ambassador will outline in Washington in more detail. In the context of the major improvement that has taken place in the bilateral relationship through the joint efforts of both sides, and as a further contribution to that effort, New Zealand welcomes that such a review was undertaken and that the outcome has been a positive US decision to introduce additional flexibilities into the operation of its waiver system applying to defence cooperation with New Zealand with a view to encouraging and facilitating scope for new cooperation initiatives in a range of multilateral areas to mutual benefit.

We understand that this has been undertaken and remains within the existing overall framework set by relevant US policy guidelines.

New Zealand's welcome of the new flexibilities and potential opportunities also is framed within the current realities of the very high operating tempo of our defence forces and the contingencies within our immediate region for which we need to remain prepared.

We share the US assessment that there is no requirement for the advice of the outcome of the US review to enter the public domain. Our own broad public comment has been confined to recent speeches by the Minister of Trade and Defence (Speech to Christchurch/Seattle Sister City Association, Seattle, 7 November 2007) and the Secretary of Defence (Speech to 4th Annual Armistice Day Symposium, Auckland, 9 November 2007). (NOTE: DCM has forwarded to EAP/OSD and OSD/ISA Powers relevant excerpts of both speeches. END NOTE.)

In the event that public comment at any stage nevertheless were required, we have taken note of the US defensive talking points and would expect to consult closely at that time on the shape of any public comment. 21 February 2008 4. (C/N) As John MacArthur summarized this paper, it comes down to three points.

-- New Zealand agrees to and welcomes the U.S. proposal and is eager to work within it.

-- New Zealand is eager to avoid any publicity about this new approach, will only say anything under "extreme duress," and will coordinate closely with the U.S. side before saying anything.

-- New Zealand is very conscious that its forces are stretched thin and does not want to mislead the U.S. about its ability to undertake new missions.

5. (C/N) DCM thanked MacArthur and Worker for their efforts to secure this response. He noted that the extended delay in receiving a response could only make those on the U.S. side wonder what lay behind the delay. Each of them said privately in the course of the day how frustrated they had been by the delays in securing consensus for this response. It was clear that even saying that much was sufficiently sensitive that neither wanted to say it in front of the other.

6. (C/N) DCM assured both MFAT officials that we completely shared their interest in avoiding publicity. On the issue of ops tempo, He suggested that one outcome of this new approach would be cooperation in training and exercises that would actually assist NZDF in improving its capabilities with less expenditure of time and resources. Without anticipating too much the specific outcomes of this new approach, we all agreed that the NZ Navy might benefit from USN experience in bringing its new multi-role vessel the Canterbury up to full capability.

The Political Atmosphere

7. (C/N) In a side conversation, John MacArthur noted that those working on this response were particularly conscious that both sides are moving into a political year, and it would be best to focus on improving cooperation in areas which remained below the level of political visibility. DCM agreed, observing that we had found Simon Murdoch's summary to A/S Hill at the Partnership Forum in September to be very thoughtful and persuasive.

8. (C/N) It remains clear though unstated that negotiating this response to our proposal was not as easy as we had thought it might be. Clearly there were those who were hesitant, either for political or operational reasons, and needed to be brought along. With that in mind, it will be important that we find ways to demonstrate that this new arrangement is working, because that will help those within the New Zealand government who want to improve relations with us and who want to cooperate operationally with us to the benefit of both sides.

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