Robert Ayson: NZ needs to watch out for itself

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Govt should keep one eye on the longer term in talks with US Defence Secretary.

Leon Panetta's upcoming visit shows how the relationship has improved. Photo / AP
Leon Panetta's upcoming visit shows how the relationship has improved. Photo / AP

Leon Panetta is coming to Auckland this week. The last US Defence Secretary to visit New Zealand was Caspar Weinberger, a Cold War hawk if there ever was one. That was 1982 when New Zealand and the US still enjoyed an active defence relationship. In the following year's defence white paper, the Muldoon Government argued that Anzus was "fundamental to our defence interests".

In words that would also have pleased Mr Weinberger, the white paper also said that in light of the Soviet Union's military ambitions the "world has cause to be thankful that the state of mutual nuclear deterrence prevails". But we all know what happened next. David Lange's Labour Government was elected on a strong nuclear-free platform which it interpreted vigorously once it entered office. The Reagan Administration responded by suspending the defence relationship. The Anzus triangle now had only two active legs.

Anzus has stayed that way ever since. Australia's defence relationship with the United States has blossomed.

When Mr Obama announced details of his administration's pivot to Asia, which included rotating US forces through Darwin, he did it in Australia. New Zealand also has a strong defence relationship with Australia. In fact it was after the breakdown in US-NZ relations that transtasman defence links were strengthened. That's one of the reasons we have Anzac frigates.

But outside Anzus, New Zealand-US defence relations have flourished in the past few years. Leon Panetta's visit is a big sign of how far that improvement has come. The trend picked up under the Clark Government whose commitment to Afghanistan was noticed in Washington. And as the US became more aware of China's growing influence in the Asia-Pacific, not having a closer relationship with New Zealand started to look counter-productive. After all New Zealand was increasingly on record in saying that it welcomed the US presence in the region.

So we have had the Wellington Declaration in 2010 where the Key Government and Obama Administration committed themselves to co-operating more in the South Pacific. New Zealand has joined US humanitarian missions in this region. But we have also had US marines and army personnel training in New Zealand. And we have for the first time in a generation participated directly in the large Pacific Rim exercise which is much more about warfighting at sea than rescuing people after natural disasters.

This is where the Washington Declaration comes in. Signed this year by Mr Panetta and Minister of Defence Jonathan Coleman, it goes well beyond the Wellington Declaration. We have now said we will work together on building up our maritime security presence and deployable capabilities.

We've even said, in language not too far from Anzus, that we are prepared to respond "in accordance with national approval processes" to regional contingencies. And we don't just mean the Pacific. The canvas is the wider Asia-Pacific region. That means New Zealand is more likely to be seen as a participant in America's rebalancing in Asia. This increases the chances of Washington expecting New Zealand to do something if the US and China get into serious trouble. We've reduced some of the wiggle room we once had, even if these declarations aren't formal treaties.

Implementing the Washington Declaration is likely to be on the agenda during Mr Panetta's short visit. And it should be. But here New Zealand needs to take a deep breath and be careful how often we say yes, and how we say it.

This applies to our other relationships too. It is not that we want to minimise the US relationship so our links with China can grow. It's that we want both of these connections, and also our vital partnership with Australia, to be subject to where New Zealand sees itself and its interests.

The good news is that we are being courted by Washington and Beijing at the same time. And we can attend to both relationships simultaneously. The meeting with Mr Panetta comes soon after the Pacific Island Forum where Mr Key announced a joint aid project in the Cooks with China.

We don't have to make all or nothing choices between the major powers. But we can't afford to think that maximising co-operation with one won't harm the relationship we have with the other. As the US-China competition stiffens up the tests we face will become more difficult. That competition will grow with China's power and ability to put pressure on its regional friends and partners. We are one of those. America's leverage on the other hand will drop as time goes on.

There isn't a major crisis now in US-China relations which we need to get around. But each time an option to work more closely with the US in Asia's challenging maritime environment is mentioned or implied, we should have one eye on whether this would suit New Zealand in the longer-term and not just today. That's the test to apply when our leaders are talking to Mr Panetta.

Robert Ayson is director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University.

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