Keith Locke: Our defense policy and exercises align us with the US against China

[This opinion piece was published in the New Zealand Herald on 5 December 2018]

With so many New Zealanders put off by Donald Trump and his maverick foreign policy, I had expected a Labour/New Zealand First Government to keep its distance. However, with its ban on Huawei’s involvement in the 5G network our Government has shown a willingness to align more closely with America, even at the risk of seriously upsetting China, our main trading partner.

China will also not be happy with what our country is doing in the military field. New Zealand blithely engages in exercises and deployments which are part of America’s power projection in the western Pacific.

In September and October one of our Orions operated with American planes out of its Kadena base in Okinawa. The planes were tasked with monitoring ships sailing to and from North Korea.

The cover story was that the Orion was helping implement UN sanctions against North Korea but the information the Orion sent back would have also been used to implement the much more comprehensive US sanctions, some of them directed at Chinese-registered boats travelling to North Korea.

Last year, also in the western Pacific, our frigate Te Kaha was put under the authority of the USS Nimitz carrier task force. It was replacing the USS Fitzgerald which had been damaged in a collision with a Philippine container ship. Te Kaha’s crew said it was a great experience, but the deployment might not have gone down well in Beijing.

In procurement, our Government has been prepared to spend huge amounts of money to be fully inter-operable with the American military. The commitment of $2.3 billion to purchase four P8 planes is a case in point. The air force could have purchased four much cheaper planes, perfectly adequate for our ocean surveillance needs, at a fraction of the cost.

The big price tag for the P8s is due to their optimisation to detect and fight submarines, in tandem with America’s P8s. There are no prizes for guessing which country’s subs America wants our P8s to keep an eye on.

A further downside of the P8 purchase is that the planes will spend so much time with Five Eyes exercises that they will be less available for what we really need, which is fisheries patrols and search and rescue over our EEZ, the Southern Ocean and in the South Pacific.

China has also expressed its concern about New Zealand’s participation, alongside Britain, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore, in the naval exercises in the South China Sea. In October our frigate Te Mana joined the latest such exercise, Bersama Lima.

The New Zealand Navy said Te Mana’s participation was to help defend Malaysia, which is a little provocative given the dispute between Malaysia and China over who owns the Spratly Islands.

All this is in the context of the Government’s Strategic Defence Policy Statement which essentially portrays China as a threat, warning of its “ability to quickly deploy a range of additional capabilities around key international shipping lanes”.

However, that same policy statement also backs “the maintenance of international rules-based order”, a theme repeated by Prime Minister Ardern at the UN General Assembly.

We know President Trump counterposes “America First” to such a rules-based order, and that in some areas, such as trade and climate change, China has a better approach than the Trump administration. So why are we backing the United States militarily against China?

I don’t believe New Zealand should go the other way and back China against the United States, particularly as China has many faults and is a one-party state. We should continue to challenge China on human rights, and our criticisms will carry more weight in Beijing if we are not so closely aligned with America.

New Zealand is better off with a truly independent foreign policy, taking a more “non-aligned” stance in relation to the stand-off between the US and China, working with both powers on the merits of each situation, and helping to mediate conflicts where necessary.

• Keith Locke is a former Green MP.