The new US Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper, is in New Zealand today and tomorrow for top-level talks with NZ Defence Minister Ron Mark and other ministers. He is on his way home from the annual AUSMIN talks in Australia between foreign and defence ministers.
The visit reinforces the strong NZ-US defence relations which have flourished since Foreign Minister Winston Peters’ visit to Washington DC last year.
The US has asked Australia to consider joining a US-led naval force in the Straits of Hormuz to protect tanker traffic from Iranian interception. It is naturally drawing on as much support as it can garner from traditional allies, including Australia.
Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds confirmed she and Foreign Minister Marise Payne had canvassed the US request at Sunday’s meeting but that “no decision had been made”.
Australia draws heavily on Middle East countries for the bulk of its imported oil supplies. Any disruption of tanker movements through the Straits of Hormuz could quickly impact the Australian economy, which usually has less than a month’s supply of crude in reserve.
The US is well aware that the RNZN cannot contribute a warship because both frigates are in Canada undergoing an extensive refit and upgrade by US defence contractor Lockheed-Martin. NZ may offer an Orion if one can be spared.
The US is considering placing intermediate-range missiles capable of flying around 1,000km in locations throughout Asia to counter similar missiles in China and North Korea. Secretary Esper says he would like to see the weapons deployed within “months“, but did not say where they would be based or whether he had a more precise timetable in mind.
This week’s talks in Auckland and Wellington are expected to review recent developments in the Asia-Pacific region – and NZ’s current defence capability plan. Of particular concern is Cambodia’s recent decision to grant China exclusive use of a naval base in the Gulf of Siam.
Reflecting this concern, an Australian Labor MP Nick Champion, deputy chair of the Federal Parliament’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, believes the Commonwealth should now consider buying Darwin Port back after the NT Govt arranged a 899-year lease by a Chinese company Landbridge.
“It’s a very important port because we have significant defence facilities in the Northern Territory and that’s the part of the world I guess we have to pay a great deal of attention to. We should look pretty clearly at making sure that that port is in government hands, and it’s for those reasons I think it should be nationalised,” he said.