Responding to new Asia-Pacific security challenges through cooperation – Xiangshan Forum, China

  • Gerry Brownlee

The last 15 years has seen the international strategic environment become increasingly uncertain and unstable.

Terrorism is a global issue that affects many nations, including those in the Asia-Pacific.

It is not new to Southeast Asia – extremist groups have had an enduring presence in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines for decades.

The increasing influence of Daesh in the region is very concerning.

In addition to amassing territory and declaring a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, Daesh has continually demonstrated its global reach through radicalising individuals and inspiring attacks.

We know that radical groups across Southeast Asia have now declared allegiance to the so called caliphate.

Police in Indonesia and Malaysia continue to disrupt planned attacks from taking place, and overall numbers of foreign terrorist fighters from Southeast Asia – including those already living in the Middle East – are now probably well over 1000.

New Zealand knows we are not immune from the terror threat. That is why we are part of the global coalition to counter Daesh.

Our main military contribution is through the deployment of New Zealand Defence Force personnel to a joint Australia-New Zealand building partner capacity mission. This mission provides training in essential skills to the Iraqi security forces.

We are also committed to working with countries in our region to prevent the rise of terrorism that could be directed inwardly or exported abroad.

Our capacity building with our regional partners focuses on their efforts to combat violent extremism, terrorist financing and the threat of foreign terrorist fighters.

In order to prevent and counter violent extremism in the first place we all need to foster positive alternatives to those who are most at-risk of radicalisation and recruitment into violent extremism. We have to counter the violent extremist narratives promulgated by Daesh and others.

In the defence space, we provide capacity building assistance to Southeast Asian partners, and practical cooperation through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum and Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus.

For example, New Zealand co-chaired the Maritime Security/Counter Terrorism Exercise with Brunei, Singapore and Australia in May 2016. Over 3500 personnel, 18 naval vessels, 25 aircraft and 40 Special Forces took part, making it the largest ADMM-Plus exercise to date.

In addition to the threat of terrorism we consider that tensions in the Asia region are greater than they were five years ago – although there has also been some positive security developments as well.

The security situation on the Korean Peninsula has deteriorated significantly this year.

North Korea has stepped up its programme of nuclear and missile tests in spite of these directly defying multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions.

New Zealand is a current member of the United Nations Security Council and supports the firm line towards ongoing North Korean provocations. 

We welcome the negotiation of a new Security Council resolution and hope this will send a clear signal to the North Korean leadership that continued provocative and dangerous actions are unacceptable.

New Zealand is playing its part on the peninsula through the longstanding contribution of New Zealand Defence Force personnel to the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission.

Cyber threats are growing markedly in quantity and variety. They can emanate from anywhere and target any of us.

Overall, we are also seeing increasing challenges to the international rules-based order. 

Responding through Cooperation

The transnational nature of the security threats facing the Asia-Pacific means they cannot be resolved by national governments alone.

It is more important than ever that countries in the region coordinate when responding to security challenges.

Fortunately, there are many tools at our disposal to assist us in achieving this objective.

New Zealand has a strong history of open and transparent government.

In the security system, regularly releasing Defence White Papers is one way in which countries can communicate their intentions transparently.

The Defence White Paper 2016 is a demonstration of New Zealand’s efforts to be transparent about its intentions and actions.

These efforts are reflected both in the contents of the White Paper, and the process surrounding its development.

The White Paper is clear about New Zealand’s views on the strategic environment, provides an overview of its important relationships, and states its position on key Defence issues.

It also signals New Zealand’s priorities for investment in military capability out to 2030.

We ensured our international partners were briefed on the White Paper on, or as close to its release, as possible. And we’ll continue to engage closely with them as we begin, once again, to assess the international strategic environment in preparation for potential future White Papers.

Increased bilateral engagement also provides countries with opportunities to collaborate in responding to security challenges.

It takes courage for countries with historical differences to sit down and find areas of mutual interest. But these connections are vitally important.

They provide the framework for the region’s militaries to build people-to-people links through joint exercises and training and boost interoperability.

By discussing common security challenges with our partners one-on-one, we can learn valuable lessons that help our countries’ militaries to operate together more effectively and efficiently.

Bilateral security ties facilitate information sharing between countries, which we know is vital for countering violent extremism.

Beyond the network of bilateral relationships across the region, New Zealand has always been a strong advocate of the ASEAN-centric regional security architecture.

Regional institutions such as the ADMM-Plus, the ARF and the East Asia Summit enable countries to engage in dialogue on regional security issues, develop active measures of conflict resolution and prevention, and facilitate practical military cooperation.

Threat Posed by Strategic Competition

I know many of the mechanisms for collectively responding to regional security challenges that I just have outlined will be familiar to you.

This is because our governments already use these tools on a regular basis.

In spite of this, strategic competition in the Asia-Pacific region is placing the rules-based international order under increasing pressure.

The key issue is whether we have the right mechanisms and processes to manage emerging and actual tensions in the region in an effective way.

For example, there are a number of complicated territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas that remain a source of significant tension in the region.

The maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea are not new. They are complex and have spanned decades.

But over the past few years we have seen heightened tension.

A particular cause of that heightened tension has been reclamation and construction activity and deployment of military assets in disputed areas.

New Zealand’s position on the South China Sea disputes – and on the recent Arbitration Tribunal ruling – has been consistent.

We do not take a position on the various claims in the South China Sea.

However, we have a direct interest in how tensions are managed, given the importance of the area for regional stability and economic security. We oppose actions that undermine peace and erode trust, and would like to see all parties actively take steps to reduce tensions. 

As a small maritime trading nation, international law – and in particular the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – is vitally important for New Zealand.

New Zealand supports the right of states to access dispute settlement mechanisms in managing complex issues. We also support their right to have the outcomes of such processes respected.

With the arbitral process now concluded, we hope that the parties can use it as a basis to work together to resolve their disputes. 

When I spoke on this issue at the National Defence University here in Beijing last year, I said that big countries that recognise their strengths and share and defuse the concerns of smaller countries have what we in New Zealand call ‘mana’ (respect).

Continued cooperation between China and the United States is indispensable to security and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific and beyond.

We recognise and encourage the continuing military engagement between the United States and China across all services and at all levels, including at RIMPAC earlier in the year.

The United States Military and the People’s Liberation Army also exercised alongside each other at the New Zealand-led humanitarian and disaster relief exercise Tropic Twilight in Tonga in July. The United States’ defence engagement in the Asia Pacific has been a major contributing factor to the region’s security and stability over many decades.

New Zealand supports and welcomes the critical role the United States plays in ensuring stability and has welcomed the increase in defence engagement under the United States strategic rebalance.

New Zealand and China have a very close relationship.

Indeed, China is an important strategic partner for New Zealand.

We have consistently welcomed the rise of a prosperous, peaceful China on the world stage.

Finding a New Way Forward

Any nation’s defence force should have the maintenance of peace and stability as its primary purpose.

So how do we ensure that strategic competition doesn’t undermine regional efforts to cooperatively address common security threats?

New Zealand believes that the continued commitment of all nations to the rules-based international order is essential.

The importance of safeguarding the rules-based international order was a key theme for the addresses delivered by both the United States Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and the People’s Liberation Army Deputy Chief of Staff Admiral Sun at the Shangri-La Dialogue this year.

This is a complex task, and one that I know many in the region are currently grappling with.

New Zealand is aware that as a small country with a defence force that does not face a direct military threat, our strategic outlook is not always the same as our partners in the Asia-Pacific.

Our small size means that a widespread commitment to the rules-based international order is particularly important to us. 

A stable, rules-based order provides a level playing field for all states, and a set of rules and institutions that govern state behaviour affords a degree of predictability.

This is why I want add to the conversation taking place across the region by talking to you about New Zealand’s approach to finding common ground on difficult issues.

Our approach is underpinned by three key principles:

1) It’s always better to engage

New Zealand has an array of international defence relationships across the region.

We work hard at maintaining ongoing discussions with long-standing partners like Australia and the United States, and newer partners like China.

We do not see our defence relationships with the United States and China as mutually exclusive, and are committed to working with both parties, and with others in the region, to achieve peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific.

New Zealand also continues to support opportunities for inclusive dialogue and practical defence cooperation at the regional level through groups such as the Association of South East Asian Nations Regional Forum and Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus, and the Five Power Defence Arrangements.

We are an active member of the regional security forums and prioritise our participation in dialogues such as the Xiangshan Forum and Shangri-La Dialogue.

2) Give the other party a ‘fair go’

This is a phrase that we often use in New Zealand. It means that you need to give someone a chance to explain their position before coming to a conclusion about their motivations.

This is not to say that New Zealand makes policy decisions about our defence engagement based on discussion alone. Particularly in a security context, actions always speak louder than words.

Acting in our national security interests does not have to be a ‘zero sum’ game. The substantial economic growth and development that we have witnessed in the region over the last 40 years has the potential to benefit us all.

However, deeper economic integration must be matched by regional security architecture that builds trust between nations and is built on a foundation of rules governing behaviour.

3) Building understanding is important

Lastly, in addition to seeking common interests, countries must be willing to engage honestly on areas of difference in order to build mutual understanding.

New Zealand adopts this approach in our engagement with all partners–. Whenever we tackle a difficult issue we look to present our views candidly and openly. We listen to the perspectives of others so to better understand their intentions. That is why New Zealand values the opportunity to discuss security challenges in forums such as this one. 


The transnational nature of threats, such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation and maritime security, mean that we must interpret our national interests in a broader and more interdependent context. To do so contributes to finding solutions rather than exacerbating problems.

If we are to address the new security challenges facing the Asia-Pacific region successfully, we must all take responsibility for ensuring that cooperation takes precedence over competition.

This will require an approach grounded in dialogue, trust and transparency.