Author: Simon Murdoch
New Zealand’s thinking about its maritime interests and defence priorities has favoured a customary hierarchy. Local and South Pacific regional concerns come first and then we span out eventually to global commitments. But recent developments in the East Asian littoral and the Northern Pacific  suggest this approach may run New Zealand into a hole. We may be at a strategic turning point in terms of risks to our interests and  in need of a paradigm shift where policy settings can be adapted to the changes occurring in this wider maritime periphery.

The idea that New Zealand even has a contested maritime periphery is not automatic in our thinking which emphasises our quest for well-governed seas much closer to home. Thanks to advances in international law and the multilateral system since the 1970s, New Zealand today claims sovereign rights over an extensive sea and seabed estate that runs well into the West Tasman sea and deep into the Southern Ocean, abutting the waters protected by the Antarctic Treaty system. 

New Zealand’s rights here are also matched by our obligations of stewardship and guardianship. We regard this maritime estate as fully governed space. This means we need to have awareness within the estate as an area which where we actively manage risks. The maritime estate is regulated by New Zealand law and we must be capable of enforcing it, including by acting alone if necessary.

Second, we are accustomed to thinking about a slightly more distant area which can be called our maritime domain. Here we find New Zealand’s assertion, which we have continuously made since the imperial 1900s, that we have defence and national security interests in an even more extensive  maritime space. This includes Antarctica, the Tasman Sea and the Southern Ocean and the realm territories (Niue, Cook Islands and Tokelau) and beyond including the high seas of wider Oceania.

Further East the maritime domain includes independent Pacific Islands nation states, with whom New Zealand has maintained or developed peaceful and friendly relations over the last 40 years. Many of these countries are small, ecologically fragile, and resource-poor. Importantly, their economic development profoundly relies on their own maritime estates. Especially in conjunction with Australia, and also with the EU , Japan and the US , and multilaterally through the UNDP and other international agencies, New Zealand has contributed to maritime risk management in this region. This has extended to all aspects of development including the management of environmental and human security challenges. Other states, including China, Russia and India, are also increasingly engaged.

In comparison to the estate, the domain is partially governed space. New Zealand certainly undertakes risk management in this domain. We also support the collective regulation of these areas through international and regional treaties. With the consent of neighbours and the help of like-minded partners, we expect to enforce the rule of law in the maritime domain and to be able to exert some control over state behaviour, as well as over commercial actors, whether legitimate or criminal. But New Zealand’s influence in the domain is less extensive than in the maritime estate.

These first and second rings are connected. It can be argued that one of the most significant missions for New Zealand diplomacy since the Second World War has been to extend the governance systems of the estate into the domain, progressively developing legal and regulatory regimes. Supporting domain governance has entailed operational and resourcing implications for  many arms of government. For the NZDF in particular, and also the regulatory agencies who have stewardship or guardianship roles in relation to New Zealand’s maritime interests, the awareness and enforcement of this estate-domain governance connection have become core functions.

This means thinking about maritime governance in a systemic sense. Governance includes the arrangements and instruments by which a state sets the rules of public and private behaviours. It extends to monitoring that behaviour (and being aware of the risks it poses to these rules). And it means enforcing rules through deterrence, interruption, prevention, and also the imposition of penalties as a result of due legal processes. When this kind of governance regime exists between states, as a result of negotiated agreements, it is called a rules-based “order”. We therefore have a maritime governance system in New Zealand which is “rules –based” and which fits within an order of plurilateral and multilateral governance arrangements under international law.

But we then need to ask where the main risks to New Zealand’s preferred system of maritime rules are coming from. And here we need to recognise that there is a third space: a maritime periphery. This view of a country’s maritime interests naturally appeals to the bigger players. In a recent book, Michael Green argues that America has progressively developed its Pacific periphery strategy around retaining  a forward posture in maritime East Asia. In 2013 China enunciated its own “Periphery Strategy”. This has had a strong continental dimension whereby China intends to shape, or reshape whole regions such as  the Mekong Basin through infrastructure partnerships with continental Southeast Asian neighbours. But it also has a maritime dimension. We have seen this in China`s shaping and reshaping of features and islands in the South China Sea and other locations, and in its surging investment in maritime capabilities.

And this leads us to the turning point. The respective maritime periphery strategies of the two biggest powers are already colliding. Nobody is sure what the outcome will be. But the reverberations are already affecting the defence and security doctrine and behaviours of many countries in the Asia-Pacific. For some time experts in Asia have been talking about deteriorating political relationships, a propensity to militarise and to deploy military force as tool of intimidation, divisions over trade and economic architecture, and the insufficiency of the existing institutional arrangements to cope with more assertive nationalistic agendas. This sort of reappraisal is now reflected in the official security policy statements of many governments, including most notably the United States. Australia is also adjusting, and its responses are particularly relevant to us.

The risks apply directly to New Zealand if we think carefully about it. Our maritime estate and maritime domain incorporate the sea-lanes and air corridors that connect us commercially with global export markets and other global flows. Notably these include the connections in the periphery between New Zealand and the Pacific Rim markets of the Americas and the supply and value chains of East Asia.

Deepening New Zealand’s connectivity to this part of the world has been the core strategic mission for our diplomacy for over the last thirty years. This extends to our participation in groupings such as  APEC and the East Asia Summit, whose membership reflects where our economic prosperity is now predominantly centred. It has involved an outward-looking political consensus among successive New Zealand governments who have championed a persistent commitment to trade liberalisation and a progressive relationship with a growing China.

These deep economic connections alone mean that New Zealand needs to adjust its maritime security overview to recognise that it too has a maritime periphery, and one which extends beyond  Oceania. Our periphery is trans-Pacific in nature and  incorporates maritime South East and Northeast Asia. And it has been the location for a long period of geopolitical and geo-economic stability. There has been no interstate conflict in Oceania since the Second World War and none in wider East Asia since Sino-Vietnam War in 1979. Political development and nation-building which has been so problematic in other regions of the world have been able to progress alongside continuous economic modernisation. This has reduced poverty and catalysed human development, nowhere more spectacularly than in China. Moreover Asia’s rising economic powers have promoted  intraregional trade and financial flows as states have negotiated market  liberalisation arrangements and rules  that encourage fairer business competition.

There have been promising signs of governance and rules. Regional political and economic institutions have been created which have developed rules and norms for interstate conduct to reduce tensions, resolve cross-border issues by negotiation and conciliation, and restrain the use of military and other coercive power by large states against smaller countries. ASEAN has encouraged an embryonic regional agenda to support human security, and to deal with non-traditional security challenges arising from the gloomier side of globalisation. Environmental protection, especially mitigating climate change impacts, is part of that agenda.

For most of my working life the this period of development, peace and progress has been underwritten by the postwar multilateral framework which has in turn been supported by US military and economic power. Washington’s open market philosophies and its extended deterrence doctrine enabled by a functional network of alliances and security partnerships has been part of this picture.
The aggregate stabilising power of these factors throughout the periphery has enabled NZ to advance its national interests. We have been able to achieve maritime estate and domain  governance goals relying on political diplomacy and levels of military investment that, in a time of overall stability, has proved sufficient.

But the erosion of US dominance coupled with China`s emergence and aspirations represent a turning point in the balance of power and the politico-economic stability of the periphery. A new order may be emerging but as yet we cannot be sure of its shape or form. The Korean peninsula situation with its obvious flow-on for Japan will give us some portents of how the contest between the periphery strategies of the US and China may be resolved.

Beneath all this lies the bigger question of how much reliance can be placed on the primacy of international law and consensual approaches to dispute resolution in the coming decades. Are the moderating institutions which contain and channel the raw exercise of economic or military power, and which enable collective responses to the pressures of globalisation fit for future purpose? Will they be able to be strengthened or left to sag under the weight of too much to do with too little if the major powers cut to the chase?  What happens for small states when their convening power -the ability to bring more powerful states into multilateral or regional negotiating frameworks - isn’t effective any more?

This means we need to be clearer where the maritime risks for New Zealand come from. It is in New Zealand’s maritime periphery that the risks to the rule-of-law are most pressing. And that is where the main challenges to the stability of New Zealand’s maritime domain and the security of its maritime estate will also orginate.

Instead of looking out from the inner to the outer maritime ring, we need to look more directly at the risks to our interests. It is in the periphery where we see the core of externally-derived risks to our national security. Competition in the periphery is the most likely generator of cross-border, cross-cutting, complex security developments and phenomena over the next 20 years. These are long- term trends and the emergent risks are long-term and strategic in nature.  Provided we turn to face them with some urgency, they can be mitigated by adjusting our domestic and external policy settings; our regulatory posture; and our approach to investing in relevant operational capabilities, civil and military.
Note from Nighthawk.NZ:

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