COMMENT:

Full credit to the Little General. Defence Minister Ron Mark's Strategic Defence Policy Statement represents the biggest change in foreign and defence policy since David Lange's bumbling caused the unnecessary rift with the United States 33 years ago.

The Government's new approach is so significant that some National MPs claim they developed much of it, but with the announcement delayed for political reasons until after the election.

No matter. It is Mark who secured approval from Jacinda Ardern and the Cabinet, and whose name appears under the foreword.

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The policy takes a much more realist stance towards both China and climate change than anything under Jim Bolger, Helen Clark or John Key.

For a generation, New Zealand has run an almost exclusively liberal-institutionalist foreign and defence policy, arguing our strategic and economic security is best protected through bodies such as the UN, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Thus, it has been argued, any potential threat from the north-west is best managed by bringing the likes of China into the WTO system and achieving greater economic integration.

Similarly, our best climate change policy is said to be trying to prevent it by taking a leadership position on IPCC commitments and shaming China, the US, the EU, India and Russia into following.

A commitment to such rules-based orders remains central under Mark's policy but without the naivety of the last 30 years.

Mark recognises that China is doing what great powers always do: advancing its own security by projecting its diplomatic, economic and military power as far away as it can from its own borders and seaboard.

It wants its rivalry with other great powers to occur less in places like the South China Sea and more in places like the Indian Ocean and South Pacific.

The New Zealand of the last 30 years in some ways resembles the Aotearoa of the early 1800s.

Two hundred years ago, Māori were all excited about the economic opportunities offered by a brand new great power that had just arrived in the region. Too late did they work out British intentions went much beyond a few missionaries, whaling stations and trading posts in the Bay of Islands.

Māori might well have ended up better off had a message like Mark's been circulating around marae between Cook's first visit and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi: let's trade with these guys under some agreed liberal rules, but let's be realistic that they are a great power and will inevitably want hegemony.

In the coming decades, it is absolutely in China's interests to secure a network of military bases through the South Pacific and absolutely in New Zealand's interests that it does not.

While the White House is currently controlled by a rogue regime, the Ardern Government's apparent tilt back to the US makes sense on the assumption Washington will eventually resume its role as the shining city upon a hill for the rules-based order.

Similarly, Mark's recognition of climate change as a military issue reflects a return of realism. If the likes of the Greens believe what they say about climate change, any domestic mitigation measures New Zealand takes, such as Ardern's ban on future oil and gas exploration, can only have a symbolic or diplomatic purpose.

We're told, for example, that extremely adverse impacts are already locked in and nothing New Zealand does will make any difference.

Hundreds of millions of climate refugees are on their way. If those are givens, our climate-change policy should be entirely about adaptation, as well as vastly upgrading our military capability for search and rescue operations throughout the South Pacific and Southern oceans and to protect our population and resources from increasingly desperate powers from our north.

New Zealand could easily offer sanctuary to every Australian and Pacific citizen if climate change deems it necessary, but not every Indonesian, let alone everyone else, through east Asia.

Be extremely sceptical that environmentalists believe their more pessimistic forecasts about climate change unless they also advocate a massive military build-up over the decades ahead.

If the definition of a statesman is one who is concerned with matters that will only come to fruition well after their time in politics, then Mark has met it.

Until now, it has been assumed that when Winston Peters finally retires, Shane Jones will cruise into the NZ First leadership.

But with Jones struggling to plant the trees or provide the scale of regional handouts he has promised, Mark can no longer be ignored as a contender.

- Matthew Hooton is managing director of PR and corporate affairs firm Exceltium.