Matthew Hooton: Why new Cold War risks turning hot


The Defence Ministry called Wednesday’s defence assessment, its first since 2014, He Moana Pukepuke e Ekengia e te Waka: A Rough Sea Can Still Be Navigated. The assessment is carefully worded not to inflame potential adversaries, with Defence Secretary Andrew Bridgmanwriting “we must never ‘will’ the worst to happen”. Yet he then outlines the most ominous global outlook since the Cold War.

A prudent fund manager could be forgiven for going long on arms manufacturers and further shorting tourism.

The 2014 assessment was prepared just two years into Xi Jinping’s presidency of China, before he made himself leader for life, and two years before anyone imagined a lunatic like Donald Trump could become US president. It only briefly mentioned Vladimir Putin annexing Crimea in early 2014, before he made himself eligible to be Russian president until 2036.

The 2014 effort assumed inter-state conflict to be low-risk and that any threat to New Zealand’s sovereign realm, including the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau, was “very low” until at least 2040.

However carefully worded, this week’s assessment implies a worst-case scenario of a 1939-45-level conflagration in the foreseeable future, but with the main protagonists being nuclear armed from the beginning, not just one of them at the end.

That means we can probably hope for the assessment’s more optimistic scenario: A US-China Cold War similar to that which began in 1949 when the Soviet Union tested the Joe-1 atomic bomb in Kazakhstan and ended when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 after four terrifying decades.

The new Cold War would see the US, China and their allies vie for control of shipping lanes, Antarctic minerals, fresh water and outer space, including above New Zealand. We’d endure near-constant attacks on IT and banking systems plus regular proxy wars like those in Korea, southeast Asia, Afghanistan, Central America and Africa, which killed millions of people during the US-Soviet struggle.

This would presumably continue until the Chinese people found some way to overthrow the one-party dictatorship that has governed them since 1949, or the Chinese Communist Party itself decided to re-embrace the liberalisation agenda Xi reversed.

New Zealand doves, like John Key, Fonterra’s Miles Hurrell and the so-called panda-lovers in our Foreign Ministry, sometimes seem stuck in the era of Jiang, Putin, Bill Clinton and Jenny Shipley goofing around in All Blacks jackets at Apec in Auckland in 1999.

Two years later, Prime Minister Helen Clark declared we lived in “an incredibly benign strategic environment”. Despite 9/11, she maintained that line until the very end, with Defence Minister Phil Goff declaring in 2008 that no one was “remotely interested” in invading New Zealand and that defence spending had been set accordingly.

Clark cancelled New Zealand’s deal with the US to lease 28 F-16s, scrapped the existing air combat wing, ended the Air Force’s submarine surveillance capability and declared New Zealand would buy no more frigates.

National has historically been accused of seeing the New Zealand military as a mere arm of Australia’s defence forces. Clark might be accused of seeing it as an arm of the UN. Neither view is truly an independent foreign policy, unless Clark — and Shipley and Jim Bolger before her — argue New Zealand had interests independent from the UN that saw us keep soldiers in Bosnia for 15 years.

Key maintained a similar line. He and Murray McCully wanted a seat on the UN Security Council while senior ministers, except Gerry Brownlee, saw defence spending as more a “nice to have” than core business.

Fair enough, perhaps, given the 2014 advice that New Zealand faced no threat to its sovereign territory for the next quarter-century.

In contrast, this week’s assessment advises Jacinda Ardern explicitly that great power rivalry and climate change, “pose a threat to New Zealand’s sovereignty and other key national security interests”. It says New Zealand is not at risk of invasion “yet” and that such a threat would almost certainly only emerge in the context of a major war. But it warns that “the prospect of a major armed conflict in the Indo-Pacific is less remote than it has been”.

China, it says, “is seeking to reshape the international system to make it more compatible with China’s governance model and national values”. Its navy is already the world’s largest blue-water force, giving the People’s Liberation Army “expeditionary capability” to project force well beyond its defensive needs.

Russia, it argues, is also “undermining the international rules-based system,” referencing its chemical weapons attacks in the UK, cyber warfare and military operations into Georgia and Ukraine.

It notes China and Russia are becoming friendlier, integrating their militaries and conducting joint maritime bomber patrols in east Asia. Unlike other countries, neither wants just to “understand and protect” Antarctica and its resources, but to “understand, protect and use” them. From Beijing, Christchurch is the last city before Antarctica, its vast mineral resources and the fresh water it stores.

The assessment worries about fragile states. That defines or potentially defines almost every country and territory around the arc of instability from West Papua to the Cook Islands. Along with the US, Japan, the UK and France, the assessment says China and Russia are “seeking to increase their Pacific engagement and presence, for a variety of reasons”.

Major threats are identified as an unnamed state “that does not share New Zealand’s values and security interests” establishing a military base in the South Pacific along with military-supported exploitation of protein, oil and gas resources, also by unnamed players. Both raise the likelihood of military confrontation in the region. More generally through the Indo-Pacific, the assessment says the risk of military conflict is real.

The military advises that New Zealand thus needs to concentrate its defence efforts on the Pacific, including “a more explicit emphasis on proactive activities alongside more familiar response activities.” That is, our soldiers, sailors and aviators would be better used supporting projects in the arc from Papua New Guinea to the Cook Islands rather than, say, the UN in a future Bosnia or Ashley Bloomfield at Jet Park.

However Ardern respondsto the assessment, the day looms when New Zealand will need to choose between Washington and Canberra on one hand, and Beijing and Moscow on the other — or perhaps opt for the sort of neutrality that the Swiss, Swedes, Iberians and Irish believe protected them in the Second World War.

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.

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