Paul East Defence

As we commemorate another ANZAC day, many New Zealanders still vividly remember the threat a Japanese invasion posed to our country in the 1940s. The events of W.W.II forced us to realise that the activities of countries in the Asia Pacific region have a direct impact on our security. In the 1990s, this is still a reality. However the threat is not so much one of direct physical attack but rather the possibility that instability in Asia could impact upon our vital economic interests in that region. Defence Minister Paul East argues the importance to New Zealand of a secure Asia-Pacific region and outlines the role we can play in helping to maintain stability in this part of the world.


The Spratly Islands are a collection of more than 100 small islands, shoals, reefs and sandbanks midway between Vietnam and the Philippines. Some are little more than rocks which barely peep above the surface, but disputes over who owns the islands and the oil, gas and other minerals believed to lie in the seas around them are increasing tensions in the South China Sea. The contenders - China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei; the chances of a major Asian war over the Spratlys in the next 10-20 years - moderate to low.

Should it happen, however, the security of New Zealand would probably not be directly affected, but our trade, and that of our major trading partners, certainly would. More than 60 percent of our exports are currently shipped to markets in the region, much of it through the South China Sea. Nearly 40 percent of the world's annual seaborne trade passes through the region from Singapore and at least 90 percent of oil and gas supplies to Japan and Korea go by this route also.

What would be the response to an Asian war? It would probably be an international one - initiated by the UN Security Council - and possibly led by the Americans, as in the Gulf War. New Zealand could be asked to contribute ships and/or aircraft to a multi-national force tasked to deter threats to the vital sea lanes of the South China Sea. Our Ready Reaction Force might be sent to Singapore to train other coalition units, or to the larger islands in the Spratly group as part of an allied occupation force.

All of this is of course hypothetical - the Asia-Pacific region in the late 1990s is prosperous, stable and mostly peaceful, and the prospect of a major regional conflict over the Spratlys unlikely, at least in the short term. But Professor Paul Dibb, author of Australia's last White Paper, warns us against taking a too benign view of security in the Asia-Pacific region. Tensions between the two Koreas, China and Taiwan, Pakistan and India, he says, could erupt into conflict with little or no warning, threatening the vital interests of Australia - and by implication - New Zealand.

Compounding these known risks to regional security are uncertainties about the future military role of the United States in the region. Since World War II, American power has helped keep the peace on which the Asia-Pacific nations have risen to prosperity. A ``drawdown'' of US forces from Japan and South Korea could encourage other regional powers to fill the gap, destabilising the region and increasing the risk of regional wars.

A larger risk, however, is a massive upsurge in defence spending by the Asian nations - in part a response to doubts about the future of US involvement in the region. Last year, East Asian states spent $US130 billion on new military hardware - equal to the combined defence budgets of all the nations of Europe.

Right now, the Asia-Pacific region supports some 8 million troops and 28,000 tanks, more than 40,000 artillery pieces and missile air-defence systems, 300 warships, 160 submarines, hundreds of fast missile boats and more than 9000 combat aircraft. By the end of this decade the sea lanes linking New Zealand to some of its most important markets will be patrolled by hundreds of new warships, submarines and state-of-the art strike aircraft.

Is it an arms race? Arguably not yet. Much of Asia's military equipment is obsolete, and the nations of the region are modernising their arsenals as their economies expand. But tensions suppressed during the Cold War are beginning to surface, and given the right circumstances - major territorial disputes, a weakening of the American military presence in the region - the rapid modernisation programmes now underway could well develop into a real arms race. What concerns many analysts is the scale of the build-up, the ``ratchetting'' effect as one nation tries to match the technology of the other, and the swing from defensive to offensive weapon systems - ballistic missiles, long range strike aircraft, missile-carrying submarines and the like.

The optimists argue that the growing prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region will in itself prevent serious conflict. They say nations whose economies are rapidly expanding and who depend upon each other for markets and investment have too much at stake to fight. The pessimists say there is no necessary link between prosperity and peace; China's actions toward Taiwan, for example, showed that other agendas can prevail. Rapid economic growth can also disturb established power balances, and cause nations to compete for investment, resources and markets. As the rise of Germany in the late 19th Century showed, such things can lead to war.

As democracy spreads in the region, however, there are hopes that tensions will ease. Democratic states tend not to fight with each other, finding less extreme ways of resolving their differences. For the moment the Asia-Pacific region is relatively peaceful and stable - because of the US military presence, because of high rates of economic growth in the region, and because Asian governments do recognise the critical link between stability and economic development.

The outlook for the next 10-20 years, however, is uncertain. There are risks to peace from unresolved territorial disputes, commercial rivalries, ethnic and religious differences. The huge expenditures on modern, sophisticated weaponry across the region have simply added another ingredient to a potentially volatile mix.

So what would New Zealand's response be to a major breakdown of the peace in the Asia-Pacific region? As always, it would depend on the nature of the crisis, and the extent to which our vital interests - and those of our allies and trading partners - were jeopardised. Today, the prospect of a physical attack on our territory worries us far less than threats to the security of the countries which take our goods, services and investment capital, and the security of the sea lanes that link us to distant markets.

Recently I returned from a Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) conference of Defence Ministers which was held in Singapore and Malaysia. The FPDA were established in 1971 and provide the framework for security cooperation in the South East Asia region between New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and Singapore. Defence Ministers of all the countries involved meet every three years.

This year the Ministers reaffirmed that the role of the FPDA is to assist in the external defence of Malaysia and Singapore. It was acknowledged that major steps have been taken to enhance the sophistication of the exercises conducted under the auspices of the FPDA. These large scale FPDA exercises are welcomed by New Zealand because they provide us with the opportunity to work with the forces of four nations and measure our own capabilities and standards against theirs.

The FPDA is considered to be a stabilising influence in a region made up of many different countries and cultures, all of which are experiencing burgeoning economies and a growing sense of national identity. New Zealand's prosperity depends heavily upon the stability of the region in which we live, trade and invest. To protect that trade and investment, we contribute to the efforts of our Asia-Pacific friends and partners to ensure that the region remains secure. That contribution requires a well-trained combat force armed with modern weapons and equipment. It requires a force able to work effectively with those of our allies - particularly the Australians - who expect us to make a worthwhile contribution both to their defence and to the security of the Asia-Pacific region.