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Australian think tank urges closer trans-Tasman defence ties to bridge diverging China views

Wednesday 21st February 2018

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An Australian think-tank is urging closer trans-Tasman defence ties to nurture a relationship that's been static for three decades in an effort to bridge diverging views on the rising regional influence of China. 

The Australia and New Zealand alliance has failed to kick on from a 1986 report arguing for the "maximum possible interoperability of equipment between the armed forces of the two countries", and is "cordial and multifaceted" but nothing like the "Anzac project on the horizon to generate a sense of shared purpose," the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says in a special report. Like most junior partners, New Zealand has relied on Australia to shoulder a heavier burden in protecting the region.

Senior analyst Mark Thompson says the paths are now diverging including on how the respective nations have responded to the rise of China and support for the US in the region. 

"New Zealand takes fewer risks of incurring Beijing's ire than Australia, and Australia openly endorses the US role in the Indo-Pacific while New Zealand avoids the subject," Thompson said in the report. "It’s clear what’s happening: Australia is betting on a continued US role in the region — and its 2016 Defence White Paper says so — but New Zealand is keeping its options open."

The rise of China's influence in the region has been a two-edged sword in New Zealand, with the biggest Asian economy's voracious demand for domestic exports traded against anecdotes of Chinese buyers bidding up house prices beyond the reach of locals. More recently, China's soft power has been the subject of an academic paper by Canterbury University's Anne-Marie Brady who has since suffered multiple break-ins at her home and office, attracting the attention of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. 

The ASPI report said both countries will have to tread a fine line between the unpredictable US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping's willingness to threaten trade sanctions, an environment that could either draw the Antipodean pair together or push them apart. 

"It's impossible to say where each will be in five or 10 years, but, as the least committed of the pair, New Zealand is at greatest risk of becoming a Western ally with Chinese characteristics," Thompson said. 

That different approach to China shows up in the two nations' respective defence white papers, with Australia discussing the US-China relationship at length, whereas New Zealand's made no mention of the superpowers as a pair. 

"It's beyond the limits of credulity to conclude that New Zealand's omission of the US-China relationship was an oversight or represents an alternate view of the world," the report said. "It must have been a conscious and deliberate omission: New Zealand doesn't want to express a view on the US role in the Asia-Pacific and doesn't want to discuss US-China relations." 

Thompson's report wants to see a stronger alliance between the Anzac nations, expanding combined exercises and pooling maritime surveillance efforts. While New Zealand will always benefit from its junior partner status at a financial level, Thompson said its defence contribution comes at no cost to Australian taxpayers. He also recommends coordinated procurement and equipment, would support the relationship. 

ASPI was set up by the Australian government in 2001 and is partially funded by the Department of Defence to offer independent advice to policymakers to improve Australia's strategic issues, especially in the Asia-Pacific. 

(BusinessDesk)

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