- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

SYDNEY, Australia — In a region isolated by distance from the rest of the world but close to failing states like the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, New Zealand’s reluctance to shoulder more of the defense burden in the South Pacific has been a source of irritation for Australia for more than two decades.

“The fact that New Zealand never committed [itself] to the levels of defense spending required for keeping up a full range of hardware for all capabilities was what gave Australia so much tension,” said Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University.

“It had an army, navy and air force, but put no money into maintaining them,” he said.

And since New Zealand was evicted from the 1951 ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States) treaty in 1986 for refusing to allow American nuclear-powered or nuclear-weapons-carrying ships in its waters, governments on the east side of the Tasman Sea have been moving steadily away from Australia because Canberra is closely allied to Washington.

“New Zealand’s anti-nuclear, pacifist stance has now become a part of its identity and what keeps it fiercely independent from the only superpower in the world,” said Peter Cozens, executive director of the Center for Strategic Studies, an independent national think tank at Victoria University at Wellington, New Zealand’s capital.

But along the way, it was also denied access to U.S. intelligence and communications.

F-16 lease canceled

In 2000, New Zealand canceled a lease-to-buy deal for 28 American F-16 fighter jets because of budget constraints. It cut back its number of modern warships to two, and reduced its air force.

These drastic moves toward further isolation dismayed its own generals and affected the morale of its armed forces.

“It left the defense forces gasping for sustenance,” said Mr. Cozens. “A lot of people have felt uncomfortable about these decisions in the past, and now, with the realization that the end of the Cold War has only opened a Pandora’s box and created more trouble spots, its time, they feel, to contribute in the best way possible,” he added.

Army getting boost

A country with under 4 million people — less than the population of Maryland — it has now decided to boost defense spending by (U.S.) $3.3 billion to be spent over the next 10 years, mainly to modernize equipment and add hundreds more ground troops.

It currently spends the equivalent of $856 million per year on defense — less than 1 percent of its gross domestic product.

By the end of the 10-year funding package, New Zealand will have increased its defense force operational baseline funding by 51 percent since the present government took office in 1999.

“It’s about recognizing that it’s time to complete the job of reversing the decay of the 1990s,” New Zealand Defense Minister Mark Burton told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. when the budget was announced early this month.

“Not everyone doing a little bit of everything, but rather that we can make realistic contributions,” Mr. Burton added.

Doing what it can

In other words, the New Zealand military will concentrate on where it can, and has in the past best contributed to peacekeeping, leaving the heavy lifting to Australia, which has five times as many people as New Zealand.

“New Zealand has moved from trying to imitate Australia to imitating Fiji,” said Mr. White.

It stayed out of the U.S.-led war against Iraq — thus, to some extent, it believes, out of danger from becoming a focus of terrorism.

New Zealand “does not believe that as a tiny, isolated, country it faces any severe threat from outside,” Mr. White added.

But what if it did face such a threat?

Australia provides shield

“The fact is that New Zealand has lost the capability to fight any substantial maritime threat and is of the view that anyone who tried to attack New Zealand would have do deal with Australian defense forces first,” said Mr. White.

Australia, which spends about. $13.34 billion on defense, has the advantages of possessing signaling and communications equipment from the United States, as well as fully equipped armed forces.

So is Australia spending more than if New Zealand had paid its own way, militarily? “Not really,” said Aldo Borgu, director of programs at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.

“Australia has already taken a decision to be ready in case of attack, especially after 9/11, and any attack that was in the vicinity of New Zealand would be close enough to be [covered] in its plans of self-defense,” said Mr. Borgu.

Wellington sent troops

Other observers taking a benign view of New Zealand’s strategic role in the region say the government in Wellington has contributed peacekeeping troops to East Timor, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea and other trouble spots, and will continue to do so long as there is a global mandate to do the job.

“There are whispers that Australia is pleased with the increased spending, but they will naturally want more from us if possible,” said Mr. Cozens.

Mr. White believes a contribution to infantry is just what Australia needs in its overseas deployments.

Its help is welcome

“Australia has only six battalions, and that should in any case be increased to eight or nine, but if New Zealand helps to ease that pressure wherever possible, it’s welcome,” Mr. White said.

Analysts believe that by redefining its “defense identity,” New Zealand could well have found the way to repair the relationship with the United States, damaged in the 1980s.

“New Zealand now does not need the latest American equipment, plus it offers troops in certain situations overseas if there a multilateral agreement, and that opens up the possibility of rebuilding something that was lost,” Mr. White concluded.

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