The NZDF is involved in a range of international military training exercises, such as Exercise Lion Anvil in Singapore and Exercise Jasco Black in South Korea, but it is the RIMPAC Exercise, short for Rim of the Pacific, which has raised the concerns of a peace groups, human rights advocates and academics across the country this year.
RIMPAC is a war-training exercise led by the US Navy based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It happens every two years. It includes 26 countries, about 25,000 troops and myriad weaponry.
New Zealand resumed participation in 2012 after a long break following the nuclear-free rift with the United States in the 1980s. In 2014, the NZ Navy was invited back to the exercise at Pearl Harbor, a clear signal from the US that relationship had been well and truly restored.
Minister of Defence Ron Mark stridently defends RIMPAC in upholding a "rules-based international order" and has downplayed risks from Covid-19.
By contrast, opposition to the exercise has arisen not only because of Covid-19 risks but also for reasons relating to New Zealand's wider security aims and priorities.
The pandemic poses particular risks to Hawaiians, to the soldiers attending, and to people exposed to them upon their return. Many of us have watched the unfolding horror inside the US with more than 100,000 dead from the virus.
The situation onboard US military vessels is no less alarming. In April, the Pentagon reported that 150 military bases - including Pearl Harbor - were infected with the virus, and a further 26 of the US Navy's battle force ships had reported at least one positive Covid-19 case.
The situation has become so bad onboard navy ships, that in early June, they stopped publicly reporting case numbers. Despite the minister's claims, a real risk of virus spread remains.
Other reasons for opposing RIMPAC involve issues both larger and smaller than the pandemic. Most importantly is the escalating Pacific arms race between the US and China.
Military expenditure in Asia and Oceania has risen every year since 1988. At $507 billion, military spending in the region accounted for 28 per cent of the global total in 2018, compared with just 9.0 per cent in 1988. This buildup threatens our peace and security.
In the past, the US had invited China to be part of RIMPAC. In 2018, however, they were distinctly "uninvited" as the Trump administration hardened its anti-China rhetoric.
Recently the Five Eyes alliance (US, UK, Australia, Canada and NZ) has dramatically expanded their work to include economic strategy, in what is a very thinly veiled attempt to limit China's power and influence.
Yet the US remains by far the largest spender in the world, and spent almost as much on its military in 2018 as the next eight largest-spending countries combined – some $649 billion.
As a result, New Zealand's participation in RIMPAC is unhelpful in building trust and confidence with all of the nations of the Pacific, and may even undermine some relationships.
RIMPAC is also responsible for serious ecological destruction, both on land and at sea. Submarines fire underwater missiles at decommissioned ships in practice "sinking" exercises, all without regard for the marine mammals and other inhabitants of the sea surrounding Hawaii.
During the 2018 RIMPAC, New Zealand soldiers took part in mortar, artillery, rocket and ordnance live fire exercises at Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA) on the big island of Hawaii near the sacred site of Mauna Kea.
The ongoing ecological damage of RIMPAC is in addition to its negative social impacts.
Hawaii is, like New Zealand, inhabited by indigenous peoples – the Kanaka Maoli – whose kingdom was forcibly overthrown by the United States in a coup d'etat carried out by US Marines in 1893, an act for which the US has apologised but never offered any reparations nor return of lands.
Instead, native Hawaiians suffer in nearly every socio-economic indicator of wellbeing in a state rich in resources. They continue to struggle for their sovereignty against an
occupation that is acknowledged as illegal by the occupying force. Not incidentally, an increase in cases of rape and child trafficking has also been specifically linked to the RIMPAC exercises.
Peace activists are often criticised for not understanding the "real" world of war and power politics, but New Zealand's decision to remain nuclear weapons free has stood us in good stead for nearly 40 years.
Now, it is time to take that decision one step further: to work for a weapons-free and independent Pacific.
New Zealand should have no part in RIMPAC, nor should it sit silently in the face of Chinese expansion in the Pacific. Instead, we should have an active role in building mutual understanding and trust, assertively working for peace and justice not straddling the competing demands of nuclear-armed states for our fealty.
• Valerie Morse is an author, librarian and member of Peace Action Wellington.