New Zealand has been something less than a full US ally since its government took a principled stand to deny visiting rights to nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed US ships in 1984.
The country’s distance from the Soviet Union and its isolation in the South Pacific probably gave the Kiwis a deep sense of security, as did, I am sure, the confidence that if anything untoward ever did happen with security in the region, New Zealand would continue to thrive under the umbrella provided by other Pacific nations.
It is getting more difficult to be a free-rider these days, especially as the shrinking U.S. and Australian navies find their ships drawn elsewhere, and China builds a blue water navy in search of resources. The security situation in the Pacific is more in flux than it has been for over six decades.
In the face of growing uncertainty, New Zealand has apparently woken to find itself uncomfortably close to isolation. Two diplomatic instruments have been concluded between the U.S. and New Zealand in the past two years that have begun to rebuild a security framework in the South Pacific: The Wellington Declaration, signed in November 2010, and, on June 19, the announcement of The Washington Declaration on U.S.-New Zealand Defense Cooperation.
This paper by Robert Ayson and David Caple of the Victoria University of Wellington explains in detail how the Yanks and Kiwis are working more closely on mutual defense than they have in a generation. It would be fair to say that the authors view this as a positive development.
What is unspoken, however, is that the U.S. to which New Zealand has allied itself is an ally with very different capabilities now than thirty years ago. While Mrs. Clinton’s work in building a diplomatic framework to address China’s rise is commendable, the capabilities of the U.S. armed forces to sustain those commitments has fallen to its lowest level since World War II despite record defense budgets.
New Zealand and the U.S. may be allies again, but as much as ever, the Kiwis need to be ready to defend themselves.