Defence Minister Peeni Henare says the new Aukus defence pact is not cause for him to re-evaluate the Government's direction in defence spending, which he has said may be pushed into the future due to Covid-19.
The Aukus pact announced by Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States last week, will have New Zealand’s only formal defence ally, Australia, purchase at least six nuclear-powered submarines and a raft of long-range missiles in the coming decades, in an effort to counter China’s rising power in the Indo-Pacific region.
Henare, speaking to Stuff, said the Aukus defence pact had not put “extra heat” on New Zealand to boost its military capabilities, though “it's going to be a constant thing on our radar to look at how we remain relevant in this space”.
“We're looking at not just that particular announcement, but others in terms of how we continue to make ourselves ready, if you like, for the challenges that we have, not just in the Indo-Pacific but in the broader Pacific.”
National Party’s defence spokesman Chris Penk said Henare has his “head in the sand” if he does not think the Government needed to rewrite its priorities with the Aukus pact in mind.
“If we bury our head in the sand of a Pacific Island we will be vulnerable to all and sundry,” he said.
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The Government has for months been reviewing the “Defence Capability Plan”, which outlines investments in military spending that are expected to be made in the coming decade.
Henare has for months signalled the Government was looking to redraw planned defence spending in line with this Labour Government’s priorities, pushing out purchases of ships and planes to instead “regrow” defence infrastructure on bases.
But experts in New Zealand’s military capabilities, including former defence minister Wayne Mapp, have said the Aukus pact would put pressure on the Government to commit to new warships in the coming decade, to replace the two frigates New Zealand purchased alongside Australia’s own frigate fleet in the 1990s.
The frigates, the HMNZS Te Mana and Te Kaha, have been undergoing expensive and lengthy refurbishments to extend their life into the 2030s. Henare in August announced the Government would spend $21.2 million upgrading the ships’ communications systems.
The 2019 Defence Capability Plan, drawn up by the prior Labour-coalition Government, expected that among major investments in a new ocean patrol and sealift vessels this decade, the frigates would need to be replacing in the mid-2030s.
“Since the announcement of Aukus, the very brief conversations I've had with my colleagues are about how do we set ourselves up for the future and, of course, the Minister of Finance is quite keen to see that the investments that have been made and our current frigates are utilised,” Henare said.
Henare said his Australian and British counterparts, prior to the Aukus announcement, had said that “we'd look solemnly at the Pacific to play our part there”.
“That particular agreement itself doesn't, I don't feel. It puts any pressure on us. We've been quite clear about setting a strategic direction and being able to cater for that in terms of our operability there.
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Asked if the Aukus pact had prompted the Government to re-evaluate its priorities, Henare said this was “not right at all”.
“We'll continue to have those conversations, it certainly hasn't put any extra heat on us … But right now too, we've got a pandemic to deal with, and it's certainly eating up a majority of my time.”
Penk said the Aukus pact was a “hugely significant step” that showed New Zealand’s allies and friends were taking the Indo-Pacific region seriously.
“The capability plan that's presumably currently being worked through needs to reflect the updated reality of last Thursday's announcement. And if it doesn't already, then it needs to be rewritten quickly to at least ensure that we've turned our mind to something major in the area.”
He said the Government needs to come up with a strategy that worked with New Zealand’s allies and friends in the coming decades.
"It's not a matter of us saying well lets also get some submarines. But if we don't take into account what they foresee in the region and the future, and we simply ... don't have any idea what our plans and priorities are, we'll just end up doing nothing, we'll kick the can down the road on frigates that will be struggling to be usefully in service at all.”
Penk said it would be “generous” to say New Zealand was playing a “full role” in the region.
"We certainly shouldn't be playing any less of a role. So if we go backwards at all, then it would be embarrassing.
“But if we maintain our current commitment, or an equivalent of it, going forward, then that will be better than what we're currently facing which is a complete blank sheet of paper on the part of the minister.