Australia’s defense and foreign affairs ministers have begun a four-nation tour to press economic and security relationships within the Asia-Pacific region as tensions rise with China.
Peter Dutton and Marise Payne are visiting Indonesia, India and South Korea and will end their travels in the United States. In Washington DC they hope to conclude a raft of major defence and strategic agreements, including the provision of new missile technology.
This raises the question of New Zealand’s Defence Minister, Peeni Henare, and his handling of those sorts of issues. Apart from issuing the occasional media statement, he seems to be missing in action.
True, he does have other portfolios – Minister of Whanau Ora and associate minister of Health, Housing and Tourism. Beehive insiders say he seems to pay little attention to the Defence portfolio.
As with his mentor, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, he is said to be reluctant to travel. This seems at odds with the demands of both portfolios because each of them requires a network of personal contacts, which is impossible to sustain by Zoom.
Some of our contacts believe this is a reflection of Jacinda Ardern’s overseeing a two-tier Cabinet, with the top rank consisting of the prime minister, finance minister, health, primary production and justice portfolios. The other portfolios and ministers seem to count for less.
Henare seems to have accepted Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s demand to trim up to $4 billion from the defence capital plan, which will impede or undermine several projects, including the new Southern Ocean patrol ship – necessary to defend NZ’s interests in the wild and windswept oceans between Invercargill and the Antarctic where even the RNZN frigates are reluctant to sail because of the turbulent sea and wind conditions.
Fortunately, other agencies have taken up the cudgels to defend Defence. It will be a mark of their standing – but neither Henare’s nor Mahuta’s – if Robertson agrees to reduce the damage.
Part of the consequential difficulty is that Defence projects such as ships, tanks or helicopters, take an inordinately long time to define, then procure.
Dutton and Payne left Australia despite pandemic restrictions which continue to make overseas travel rare for government officials. Their US visit will prepare for Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to Washington, DC, later this month to meet with US, Indian and Japanese leaders in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
He and the US will also mark the 70th anniversary of the signing of the ANZUS Treaty of 1951. NZ wrote itself out of this pact in 1984, although in theory it remains a member.
Payne and Dutton will meet their Indian counterparts in New Delhi. They will discuss economic security, cybersecurity, climate, critical technology and supply chains, Payne said in statement.
Australia wants to strike a free trade deal with India, a Quad partner, to reduce its economic reliance on an increasingly hostile China.
Despite all the sentiments expressed in Wellington, NZ by comparison with the Aussies appears a minor and reluctant participant not only in its own Pacific backyard but also the wider world.