Kiwis are told to put together emergency kits for a worst-case scenario – but the New Zealand state’s own stockpile is lacking despite an increasingly uncertain global environment, Dr Reuben Steff writes
Comment: Is Aotearoa New Zealand prepared for an increasingly unstable and unpredictable future?
This question has been on my mind in recent years. Let me start by being clear about one thing: I’m not a doomsday guy – I’m a pretty happy-go-lucky fellow and, generally speaking, I think recent decades have been something of a ‘golden age’ for humanity. There is good research out there by scholars like Steven Pinker and Gregg Easterbrook that back this up.
But I’m also someone who makes their living by teaching global security issues. I therefore find myself surveying a vast amount of information on a daily basis from a range of news sources, podcasts and literature. I try to get a sense of how the international security environment is changing and what that means for us down here in New Zealand – and what I’m seeing concerns me more than it ever has in my life.
My shifting viewpoint is the result of changes at the global level, but I also have concerns about domestic trends here at home. Let’s start with the global issues of Covid-19, US-China strategic competition and an array of negative trends.
If there is a silver lining to the tragedy of Covid-19, it’s that it has proven to be a long-overdue ‘wake-up call’ for New Zealand, revealing that we are positively and negatively interdependent with the outside world.
For decades now, the accepted wisdom has been that globalisation was a permanent reality and almost seamless: we will always be able to import massive amounts of the goods we need to develop and sustain a first-world economy, and export our goods to make money to, in turn, keep buying more and grow. Tourists would always be willing and able to flood to our shores, bringing with them money to dump into the economy.
Yet the last two years have called this assumption into question, with Covid shutting down travel – in turn grinding international tourism to a half – and leading to supply chain shocks that have left us without ready supplies of certain goods. On top of this, Covid has acted as a ‘polypandemic’ by intensifying many other concerning international trends.
Great Power conflict 'no longer inconceivable'
There are other worrying developments, too.
Our neighbours in the South Pacific are fragile at a time when new actors in the region with values and interests different to our own are expanding their influence. The Government’s newly-released Defence Assessment makes this clear, declaring: “The establishment of a military base or dual-use facility in the Pacific by a state that does not share New Zealand’s values and security interests: Such a development would fundamentally alter the strategic balance of the region.”
The implication, of course, is that China may look to establish a base somewhere in the South Pacific in the coming years. This relates directly to the second major global issue: the outbreak of Great Power competition between the US (including its allies and partners) and China in the Indo-Pacific. The recent announcement of Aukus – a new trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and US in which Australia will acquire nuclear-powered submarines plus the sophisticated infrastructure to build them, cooperate on development of state-of-the-art high technologies (like artificial intelligence, cyber, quantum and undersea technologies), and increase the rotation of US military forces through Australia – is part of the US-China strategic competition.
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Indeed, even great power conflict is no longer inconceivable. In 12 of 16 cases over the last 500 years, rapid shifts in power between rising nations – in this case China – and declining ones – like the US – resulted in war.
This new competition places New Zealand in a precarious position, given China is our largest trading partner while Australia and the US are our closest security partners. We are in a dilemma that constantly requires our leaders to call out China for behaviour inconsistent with our values and stay onside with our allies, while simultaneously keeping some distance from those partners (for example by Parliament not calling China’s treatment of the Uyghurs ‘genocide’) so China does not severely reduce trade with us.
Our officials will have noted that a number of nations – such as Australia, Norway and South Korea – have all felt China’s wrath economically and diplomatically in recent years for taking positions that Beijing found intolerable.
We are told as private citizens to have ‘emergency kits’ in case we live through an earthquake or other natural disaster – but does the New Zealand state have the equivalent in hand? Do we have supplies of pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, critical inputs for our industries, and basic food stuffs...stored somewhere across the country?
But wait – there’s more! Covid-19 and US-China competition overlaps onto a number of other worrying trends. These include a weakening rules-based international order, an increasing number of extreme weather events (recent analysis suggests future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than currently believed), decoupling in high-tech industries (leading to a nascent digital ‘Berlin Wall’), backsliding democracies and ascendent authoritarianism, the polarising effects of social media, increasing levels of misinformation (including in New Zealand) and declining levels of trust in key institutions (again, including in New Zealand), growing levels of inequality, and increased tensions over regional flashpoints (including the South China Seas, Taiwan and North Korea).
It is not outside the realm of possibility that the confluence of these intersecting factors (and ‘black swan’ events like more pandemics or other unexpected phenomena) could pose serious challenges to New Zealand’s way of life in the coming decades.
In short – when we combine the above together, it all add up to a recipe for more global shocks more often in the years to come.
This raises some uncomfortable questions: what is our level of resilience to recover from future – and potentially severe – global shocks? Are we prepared for the event we are cut off from the world entirely for a period of time?
We are told as private citizens to have ‘emergency kits’ in case we live through an earthquake or other natural disaster – but does the New Zealand state have the equivalent in hand? Do we have supplies of pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, critical inputs for our industries, and basic food stuffs (yes, we can ‘feed ourselves’ but how quickly would it take for our agricultural sector that is designed for mass exports to the world, to reorient itself and get food to our population of 5 million?) stored somewhere across the country?
In my conversation with people in government, it seems clear we do not have a national ‘emergency kit’. Furthermore, our national resilience is undermined by a number of domestic trends headed in the wrong direction. This includes growing inequality, a poor environmental record, weak productivity growth, and an economy still largely reliant on agricultural exports and anticipating the return of high-levels of international tourists. Additionally, the cost of living is going up due to increasing house prices and inflation while the International Monetary Fund forecasts that by 2025 real GDP and average incomes in New Zealand will be lower than 2019.
Despite the unpredictability and instability of the international environment, our low-tax economy, small military, teetering infrastructure and tendency to do things ‘on the cheap’ all contributes to a long-term vulnerability – we may have little ‘surge’ capacity for times of future crisis. New Zealand could easily find its resources and capacities outstripped if and when international or domestic crises break out in the coming years.
I believe that the likelihood of more geopolitical, economic and environment shocks to emerge in the years to come is growing. This does not mean they will occur, but rather the chances they will have increased and we need to start a conversation about it.
We must maximise our chances of remaining a stable, prosperous and resilient nation throughout the 21st century. While the problems of the past cannot be fixed, we can understand the most severe issues and challenges facing us today and likely to emerge in the future. With knowledge comes power, perspective and understanding – these should inform Aotearoa New Zealand going forward.