Audrey Young: Peter Dutton and Peeni Henare quietly building defence relations

A few days before the latest NZ Defence assessment was released, Defence Minister Peeni Henare phoned Peter Dutton in Australia to discuss the priorities underpinning it, among other things.

By all accounts it was an excellent call.

The Australian Defence Minister once offended ordinary Kiwis and ministers alike by referring to New Zealand deportees as “putting out the trash”.

But the relationship with Henare has been quietly blossoming under the radar since Dutton took over Defence in March.

Dutton was highly supportive of Henare declaring the Pacific a priority for the New Zealand Defence Force in a set of priorities he released alongside the Defence Assessment of current challenges.

Dutton is having a growing importance in the Australian Government and a big influence on its frosty relationship with China.

More than Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison or Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Dutton is becoming the most vocal talking-head in Government for Australia-China relations.

Not only does it have the effect of raising the temperature with China, what he says matters here because it is a measure by which New Zealand is judged in given situations: out of step with Australia, in concert with Australia, softer or more nuanced than Australia.

The focus in Australia on possible conflict between the US and China amplifies the gulf between Australia and New Zealand’s priorities. Besides the Pacific, the two other priorities set out by Henare were “people” and “infrastructure”, which appear almost quaint next to the $280 billion upgrade Dutton is overseeing.

That is not counting the billions yet to be committed to getting at least eight nuclear-powered submarines through the Aukus agreement with Britain and its American allies in the Anzus alliance – and yesterday it signed a $1 billion deal with South Korea for artillery units and vehicles.

Dutton is rarely out of the news with provocative statements about China. Last month in an interview in The Australian Dutton said it would be inconceivable for Australia not to support the United States if it helped to defend Taiwan from an invasion from China.

He gave a more considered speech to the Press Club three weeks ago, in which he set out China’s rapid military expansion including having tripled its naval battle force over the past 20 years to become the largest navy in the world with 355 ships and submarines; and having amassed 2000 ballistic and cruise missiles.

He said every major city in Australia, including Hobart was within the range of China’s missiles and if China took back Taiwan, the Senkakus Islands claimed by both Japan and China, would be next.

In an interview on Sky News at the weekend, he described China’s response to the Aukus agreement as “irrational”, possibly a mutually held view. It was claimed by one Sydney think-tank last week that China’s trade reprisals against Australia introduced last year were in response to comments by Dutton.

Political opponents have suggested Dutton’s out-there role is part of a bid to turn security into a major issue in next year’s election when the Coalition will be seeking a fourth consecutive term.

It is proving a highly charged issue with Labor’s Penny Wong accusing Dutton of amping talk of war over Taiwan in a dangerous election tactic, and Labor leader Anthony Albanese calling him a “boofhead” during Question Time.

Henare and Dutton have not yet met in person but have had numerous conversations in the past eight months, including just before the Aukus announcement in September.

The necessary exclusion of New Zealand from the agreement, not least because of the nuclear element of the agreement, has obscured the largely positive response to it by the New Zealand Government.

That was repeated by Henare last week when he said he has told Dutton it would be a missed opportunity by New Zealand not to leverage some advantage from other technological gains that could be part of Aukus such as cyber security.

The pair also talked about the respective deployment of troops and police to the volatile Solomon Islands, the first major security crisis there since the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomons Islands (Ramsi) ended in June 2017 after a presence of 14 years.

The new civil unrest arose from its decision to stop recognising Taiwan in favour of China.

There have been claims by Opposition MPs that Government politicians were bought off, although neither the Australia nor New Zealand Governments have openly accused China of that.

The situation in the Solomons erupted after the Defence Assessment was done. It barely rates a mention.

But for a New Zealand Defence document, the assessment is relatively direct.

The messages in it lean more towards Australia’s more frank descriptions and less reading between the lines is required.

It reflects the growing political reality that New Zealand is finding it harder to navigate a middle path between China and the United States.

Or, as the NZ Defence Assessment itself puts it: “Many states are finding their space to navigate a middle path to be narrowing.”

The assessment builds upon the important speech by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in July in which New Zealand embraced the continued primacy of the United States in the Indo-Pacific.

The assessment defines the security problems facing New Zealand and the region in grave terms.

Essentially it says that the prospect of war with China in the region is very real, that New Zealand Defence needs to be focused and alert to that possibility, to assert itself more in the Pacific, be a closer and proactive partner to Pacific Island states, to support US security pre-eminence in the region, and oppose China establishing any military base in the region from which it could project its growing military strength.

On the question of New Zealand’s vulnerability, it suggests that any threat to New Zealand would likely take place only within the context of a major war, that any direct threat to Australia would put New Zealand security at risk and that New Zealand would require substantial assistance from partner nations to deter or defeat any such military threat.

It embraces the Five Eyes intelligence with Australia, US, Canada and Britain and said the “defence aspect is as long-standing and as fundamental as the intelligence aspect.”

The prospect of China establishing a base in the Pacific has been around for many years with prospects ranging from Fiji to Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Kiribati.

Plans for a fisheries park with a seaport and airport on Daru Island in Papua New Guinea were floated earlier this year by a Chinese company.

Kiribati, which switched allegiance from Taiwan to China in 2019, has recently announced it will open up the Phoenix Island marine reserve to commercial fishing and observers suggest that will revamp China’s interest in developing a World War II airstrip in the northern part of the group.

The beauty of the Defence Assessment, which is drawn up every five years or so, is that it is dubbed as independent advice of the Ministry of Defence and NZ Defence Force to the Government.

If China were to kick off about it, the Government has deniability. It can say, as Henare did, that it is not Government policy.

In reality, however, such advice would not be tendered without the prior acceptance of security experts in the Department of Prime Minister, and Foreign Affairs, and the knowledge of senior ministers.

The Government’s response to the assessment will be contained in an even more important next step, a Defence policy review, the terms of reference for which will be drawn up early next year.

That is when the talking will stop and policy actions will determine how much closer to Australia that New Zealand has moved.

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