It’s no secret – but you mightn’t know NZ has signed on for continued commitment to Five Powers defence agreement

Health Minister Andrew Little has announced the Government’s approval of $154 million of funding to add a new tower block with 64 more beds to Christchurch Hospital’s $525m acute services building.

Stuff and RNZ were among the media to report this news.

We found no media reports (albeit our search was not exhaustive) of Defence Ministers from Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and United Kingdom reaffirming their nations’ continued commitment to the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA).

The statement from Defence Minister Peeni Henare said the ministers recognised the FPDA’s significant role and contribution in promoting cooperative responses to an increasingly complex contemporary security environment.

The Ministers welcomed the growth in scope and depth of the FPDA over the last 49 years,saying it has evolved to introduce elements of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter-terrorism and maritime security into FPDA exercises and discussions while retaining its core focus on conventional warfare.

This development has enabled FPDA to retain its relevance in an increasingly complex contemporary security environment.

The Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to the FPDA’s founding principles: to remain relevant and defensive in nature, and evolve at a ‘pace comfortable to all’. Complementing these founding principles, the “3Rs” principles of adhering to the FPDA’s Remit, maintaining Relevance and providing Reassurance to the region are cardinal in guiding the FPDA’s future outlook.

An article in The Diplomat a year ago – describing the agreement as a nonbinding defence pact –  said decades after its 1971 creation, regional geopolitics have shifted, along with the defence forces of each FPDA member.

Li Jie Sheng, the author of the article, is a freelance research analyst with interests in Southeast Asia, global political economy, multilateral organisations and international development. He has a PhD in International Political Economy from the University of Birmingham.

He provides a useful backgrounder as well as a pointer to the future:

The FPDA was formed against the backdrop of communism, perceived aggression from Indonesia and the withdrawal of British forces from Malaysia and Singapore.

It was not planned as a detailed defense organization like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), yet it had military and political structures in the form of the Joint Consultative Council, the Air Defense Council, and the Integrated Air Defense System (IADS).

The former two merged in 1994 to form the FPDA Consultative Council, while the latter became the Integrated Area Defense System, increasing integration among member states.

Although not on the scale of NATO, the FPDA also consistently initiated military exercises such as the Air Defense Exercises, the annual Exercise Suman Warrior, Exercise Bersama Shield, and Exercise Bersama Lima. The FPDA has evolved into a credible military alliance in Southeast Asia.

The five nations have consistently affirmed their presence and commitment to the FPDA, but each member has differing defense priorities and outlooks, the author says.

He gives brief rundowns of each member’s role.  In the case of our country:

Without any offensive capability, the New Zealand military contribution is the lowest among the members. Yet the FPDA assists in maintaining New Zealand’s foreign policy engagement with the Southeast Asia region. As a Five-Eyes member state also, New Zealand also has much to contribute in the intelligence component of the FPDA.

The article foresees the FPDA continuing as a defence pact and evolving to match the regional security architecture.

Nevertheless, there are possible approaches the FPDA should consider for its future. First, it could maximize the effect of its various annual military exercises. It should consider drawing in larger assets, such as the British Queen Elizabeth-class carriers. The exercises could also increasingly draw upon non-defense related assets of members such as foreign assistance and environmental expertise. This is especially true for the U.K., whose plans for the East Asian region have still not been defined for the near future. 

Second, while non-member states have been invited to observe FPDA exercises, non-members could be allowed to participate in FPDA exercises. This might be a controversial change, given that not all not all states have resolved their differences. Yet, the inclusion of other countries could also help decrease tensions between regional countries and, in fact, enhance FPDA militaries. 

Third, the consultative nature of the FPDA needs to match the changing security environment in the wider East Asian Region. This is not to say that the FPDA defense ministers and defense chiefs do not consider this as part of their discussions. Rather, they need to intensify their outlook on the FPDA’s position in East Asia’s future. The FPDA is indeed a perfect complement for other regional defense agreements including the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting, the Malacca Straits Patrol, and U.S. defense partnerships.

FPDA members need to consider how they will approach a series of challenges, including the great power competition between the United States and China; increasing asymmetric and hybrid threats like climate change; and domestic politics and demographics. 

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