With the Afghanistan withdrawal allowing the US to sharpen its focus on the Indo Pacific, Dr Wayne Mapp considers New Zealand’s position in the context of an energised or expanded Quad grouping.
The end game in Afghanistan proved to be as traumatic as was ever feared. The sight of thousands of panicked Afghans at Kabul airport, with the ultimate denouement of ISIS-K terror bombings seemed a stark illustration of the impotence of the West. It was an ignominious end to the 20-year intervention by the US-led coalition, which at its peak involved more than 50 nations.
Naturally there were many commentators, both left and right, who saw this as the end of American leadership of the West. That hereafter the nations of the west would be aimlessly absorbed in their own internal morass while more capable and confident nations would assume the mantle of the true dispensers of power. These nations, China and Russia, would be able to impose their authoritarian approach across the world, most particularly in Asia.
Does the final failure in Afghanistan presage this outcome? That the West is in inevitable decline and the world has become a more dangerous and uncertain world for all who believe in a more liberal world order?
There is no doubt that the ideological contest has become much sharper in recent years. But this has had precious little to do with Afghanistan, it is a function of China’s rise.
It is worth restating that the fundamental facts of great power relativities remain. The United States is the most powerful economic and military actor in the world. It is a continent-spanning nation with nearly 400 million people.
Political discourse and government competence will be a variable factor changing from administration to administration, perhaps more evident in recent years. However, it is not immediately obvious that the United States is suffering such a fundamental loss of confidence that marks the current era apart from previous times of political disturbance as existed two generations ago in the 1960s and 1970s.
Most pertinent for New Zealand is the fact that the United States has sovereign territory right across the Pacific. In this regard, World War Two, and in particular, the Pacific War, casts a long shadow.
Even if the United States reduces its global footprint, the last place this would occur is in the Pacific. It is quite possible that the United States presence in the Pacific might increase as resources are shifted into this region. There is a deep consensus in the United States, right across the entire body politic, that the United States must be the pre-eminent power within the Pacific.
These days the concept of the Pacific has been extended to the Indo Pacific. When contrasted to the prior concept of the Asia Pacific, it has a distinctly more maritime flavour. The Asian continent is dominated by China; the Indo Pacific is not.
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For China, this means a continuous Belt and Road from the Pacific to the Arabian Gulf. China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran constitute an unbroken land bridge, so it would not be surprising if China spends political and economic capital to make this a strategic reality.
In contrast, the idea of the Indo Pacific rests on securing the maritime routes of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Each of the four nations of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) nations, India, Australia, Japan and the United States, have an extensive maritime heritage. To a greater or lesser extent, all of them are open, internationally connected democracies. The Quad nations have also developed broader connections with the Quad Plus group, which includes New Zealand.
The Quad nations have been active in organising naval exercises as their preeminent defence activity. The naval combat capability of the four Quad nations is around three times that of China. However, it is not just a question of counting the number of platforms, it is also a matter of assessing the overall naval capability of each of the Quad nations and their level of training and doctrine. Unlike China, each of the Quad nations has long experience in naval doctrine.
Such a level of overmatch may seem impressive, but it is not as if the Quad nations will act in concert in the manner of NATO. Their interests are too diverse for that. There are many potential flash points in the Indo Pacific that would only engage the interests of two or three of the Quad nations.
The complicating point for China is that it will not be able to definitively determine on any particular issue how many Quad nations would choose to be engaged. Depending on the location of the conflict and the specific issues in play, it is also quite possible that other nations may join the Quad nations. Some of these, notably Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam, as well as other ASEAN nations, have sufficient naval capability to be able to make a real difference.
The end of the Afghan conflict, at least in so far as it involves the United States and its partners, will mean that the United States is able to refocus its efforts. Unlike the difficult mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, the maritime domain of the Indo Pacific is where the United States and its partners have a decided military advantage. Counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare does not play well to the technological strengths of the United States.
Immediately after the final departure of United States forces from Afghanistan, Greg Sheridan, writing in The Australian, pronounced COIN dead, not just for the United States, but also for Australia. The open oceans of the Indo Pacific will enable the United States Navy to effectively use its extraordinary level of military competence in any potential conflict. The same might also be said of the other Quad nations.
One of the Quad nations, Australia, is New Zealand’s only formal ally. The dominant Quad nation, the United States, remains an extremely important partner. It is inevitable that there will be an expectation that New Zealand will be a fully engaged partner with the Quad nations, able to contribute meaningful military capability.
This implies that strategic pressure upon New Zealand will increase in coming years. New Zealand will have to decide the extent to which it wants to be engaged with the Quad nations in terms of their unity of action.
Looking to the future means assessing the nature of the military capabilities that will be useful in the maritime domain. The P8 Poseidon aircraft, the ANZAC frigates, and the new sustainment ship, HMNZS Aotearoa particularly stand out. As the NZDF notes, the Aotearoa is a “technologically enhanced asset that can add real value to combat operations.” As readers will have noted with the UK Carrier Strike Group, led by HMS Queen Elizabeth, two of the nine ships in the group were RFA tankers, Tidespring and Fort Victoria. The Aotearoa would have comfortably fitted within such a carrier group. More pertinently the Aotearoa is one third of the tanker capability of the Australian and New Zealand navies.
The ANZAC frigates are midway through their life, with the major upgrade of their combat systems having been just completed. Although HMNZS Te Kaha has already been in service for 24 years, it is likely to remain in service through to the mid 2030s. HMNZS Te Mana could potentially be in service through to 2040. The Offshore Patrol Vessels and HMNZS Canterbury will need to be replaced before 2035.
The decision train to replace all these ships ought now to be in place. One of the goals should be to achieve a better balance within the Navy, to have fewer classes of ships, even if within the main class, there is a mix of high and low capability.
The choice that New Zealand makes in replacing the ANZAC frigates could have a significant bearing on how Zealand positions itself in relation to its partners. The decision is not only one for the appropriate structure for the Navy, it also has a bearing on how New Zealand will continue to implement and expand its independent foreign policy as it applies to the Indo Pacific.