By Daljit Singh
A country of just 4 million people, New Zealand punches above its weight in soft power. It is admired in Asia for its good governance, strong support for international institutions and the rule of law, and expertise in niche areas like dairy and agricultural produce, forestry, disaster management and education, including English language training.
It has reached out to Asia, the destination of most its exports, with remarkable success. It enjoys excellent relations with the major Asian powers and is the only OECD country to have entered into a comprehensive free trade agreement with China with whom relations have been especially warm. New Zealand is a member of all the ASEAN-centred regional organisations. It is trusted and valued in ASEAN for its steadfast support of ASEAN goals, provision of good counsel, effective technical assistance, and non-confrontational style.
However, New Zealand needs to be more alert to the power shifts in the Asia-Pacific region which are generating unease among Asian states and also in Australia and America on whom the security of New Zealand ultimately depends. New Zealanders may not have sufficiently recognized these powerful currents because distance deprives them of any real sense of threat, even though there have been some changes in official thinking recently.
New Zealand’s military forces are highly regarded for their professionalism and have been deployed in coalition operations in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. However they are small in numbers. As a result of fateful decisions taken in 2000, New Zealand today has no combat air force, a navy of just two frigates and an army of two battalions plus some special forces. As a percentage of GDP, New Zealand’s defence expenditure is only a little more than half of what Australia spends on defence.
Beyond the present fiscal constraints, New Zealand should consider raising its defence expenditure, as a proportion of its GDP closer to that of Australia. This would enable it to strengthen its role in Five Power Defence Arrangements and help maintain, with allies and friends, a power balance in the Southeast Asian region. You can read additional analysis and a full report on this topic for the Asia New Zealand Foundation here:
Daljit Singh is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore. He is the author of a new report for the Asia New Zealand Foundation that assesses ASEAN’s view of New Zealand.