New Zealand’s involvement in the Five Power Defence Arrangement is not well known, but it’s now getting us in a lot of trouble.
The other parties in the arrangement are Britain, Australia and two rather authoritarian one-party states, Malaysia and Singapore.
The most visible expression of the FPDA is its joint military exercises, usually held in or around Malaysia or Singapore. It is these exercises that are getting us in to bother with our main trading partner, China.
Last month China’s state news agency Xinhua found it “baffling” that New Zealand was participating in the FPDA Bersama Shield exercise in the South China Sea at the same time as John Key was visiting Beijing and said it “raises suspicions”. These suspicions would have been heightened by Malaysia’s hosting of the exercise when Malaysia and China are contesting ownership of some of the Spratly islands in the South China Sea.
In this context, China wouldn’t have been too enamored with our government
stating that it was participating in the exercise
because “our ability to operate alongside FDPA partner nations is critical to successfully providing security in the South East Asian region.”
China may also not have been happy when an RNZAF Orion travelled on from the Bersama Shield exercise to the Philippines for
“joint engagement activities with the Philippine Air Force.”
The Philippines is also claiming some of the Spratly Islands.
If there is one thing shared by New Zealand’s four FPDA partners (Britain, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia) it is close military ties with the United States, China’s main adversary in the South China Sea.
The Xinhua editorial
was critical of comments New Zealand had made on the South China Sea dispute and warned it not to be “hijacked by the ambitions of its military allies.”
Xinhua hinted there could be economic penalties
for taking sides against China. “Key should be reminded that New Zealand is an absolute outsider in the dispute and not a concerned party, and that any attempt by Wellington to break its promise not to take sides on the issue would risk complicating the flourishing trade ties between China and New Zealand.”
What should our response be? Of course, we should be concerned about the tensions caused by the multiple sovereignty claims on islands in the South China Sea. But the region doesn’t need nations like New Zealand taking sides. We are best placed to be neutral, and offer ourselves as mediators if and when that would help.
The danger of nations using military forces as bargaining chips
was reinforced last week
when the Pentagon accused two Chinese jets of an “unsafe” interception of an American spy plane flying over a Chinese installation in the South China Sea. Given that the dispute over the islands cannot be solved militarily it is hard to see any useful purpose to US Navy patrols in the area. It only leads to more tension, and greater Chinese hostility to anyone lining up behind the Americans, including our FPDA partners and maybe New Zealand.
The military standoff in the South China Sea gives some urgency to New Zealand’s withdrawal from the Five Power Defence Arrangement. The FPDA originated in the Cold War is well out-dated. It complicates our relations with China. And in any case we shouldn’t be in such a close military relationship with the governments of
that have oppressive restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.