Ben Morgan’s Pacific Update – A simple explanation of this week’s military and political developments in the Pacific

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US Army’s amphibious warfare capability increases 

The US Army recently announced formation of the new 5th Composite Watercraft Company.  Despite the mundane name, the establishment of this unit is an important signal about US planning for a Pacific conflict. 

The unit contains landing craft, small boats and even a harbour master team. Its role is to facilitate the movement of soldiers and supplies from ships off-shore, onto land.  The unit does this either using its own fleet of vessels or by coordinating the movements of other service’s vessels; for instance, the US Navy, Marine Corps or those of allied nations like Australia. 

Formation of this unit is a very strong indicator of American anxiety about the Pacific because as recently as 2019, the then US Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper was instructing the US Army to get rid of their remaining landing craft.  So, reforming regular force landing units in the Pacific indicates the US’s level of concern about the region.

The US military has two forces that it uses for expeditionary operations; the US Marine Corps and the US Army. The US Marine Corps is a relatively small organisation focussed on amphibious war, or getting soldiers quickly ashore during conflict; either intervening in small conflicts themselves or if the operation requires larger more heavily equipped forces the US Army can use a beachhead secured by the Marine to get their units that have more tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery ashore.   

Units like 5th Composite Watercraft Company facilitate that process, and its formation indicates that the US sees a requirement in the Pacific to be able to get the US Army’s heavier formations into battle rather than relying solely on the US Marine Corps.  A sudden and important change indicating new American thinking about potential operations in the Pacific. 

 

New Zealand faces tough defence decisions

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New Zealand’s new government faces tough decisions about defence. New Defence Minister, Judith Collins’s ‘Briefing to Incoming Ministers’ was likely to have been depressing reading. Conflicts around the world are challenging the international rules-based order, authoritarian politics fuelling a trend towards aggressive unilateral action. 

Meanwhile, the Pacific is fast becoming the focus of international military attention, Sino-American competition fuelling a regional arms race.  China’s defence budget increasing approximately 7% every year since 2020. Japan committing to doubling its defence budget by 2027, Australia’s defence budget recently topped $ 50 billion and their recent Strategic Defence Review plans for even more substantial increases. This trend includes nations strengthening military partnerships and alliances.  The AUKUS deal is an example of traditional allies Australia, the US and UK shoring up their military relationships.  However, we also see the US and China competing to make defence deals with small Pacific nations like Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.

New Zealand is not and never has been a major military power, but historically participated in collective security and protecting the international rules-based order, demonstrating that smaller nations can actively engage in opposing aggression and maintaining stability. This history of commitment to collective security gives New Zealand a level of international influence that few small countries can boast.  New Zealand’s withdrawal from ANZUS in the 1980s, led to the nation distancing itself from ‘polar’ Soviet-American competition and establishing a more nuanced defence policy. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, this approach worked, and allowed New Zealand to get the best of both worlds.  It maintained its beneficial ‘Five Eyes’ relationship, committed forces to peace-keeping missions, avoided participating in US operations in Iraq and was able to pick and choose how it operated in Afghanistan. And, throughout this period New Zealand built a strong trading relationship with American’s rival China. 

However, the world has changed and the new government needs to set policy about that reflects the new realities.  China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner, but is now locked in intense competition with traditional New Zealand defence partners like Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, the US and the UK. China is also competing with newer defence partners like NATO.  

Countries like Australia, the UK and the US are currently working hard to make sure their militaries can fight alongside each other, called being ‘inter-operable.’ New technology underpins inter-operability and New Zealand is falling behind its partners in several technology areas.  Although conflict in the Pacific is unlikely, the risk is increasing and collective security, or the doctrine of nations working together to deter potential aggression mitigates this risk.  

Investing in defence is a responsibility of nations that seek the protection of collective security. New Zealand’s current defence budget is roughly 1.18% of GDP. Australia’s is approximately 1.9% and is predicted to grow to 2.3% over the next ten years.  Meanwhile, most large Pacific nations are increasing defence budgets.

Hence, the recent discussion between New Zealand and Australia’s defence and foreign affairs ministers. Essentially, New Zealand is approaching a decision-point regarding its defence commitments.  Two key decisions are on the agenda:

  • New Zealand’s relationship with traditional partners. Currently, New Zealand has one ally, Australia and several defence partners. All of which are increasing defence budgets and developing their military capabilities, the key example being AUKUS. New Zealand must decide if it follows its traditional defence partners; or takes an independent path.  

 

  • New Zealand’s level of defence spending.  If New Zealand chooses to maintain its historic relationships it is likely to require more defence spending.  The nation’s military is small but is well-trained and equipped. However, is chronically short of people and there are capability gaps that need to be urgently addressed. The ‘Bilateral Service Cooperation Plan’ or ‘Plan ANZAC’ is a project announced last year to address inter-operability issues with Australia. But, is this project enough to enable New Zealand to stay a useful ally?  If not, is New Zealand prepared to commit the resources required to achieve that level of capability? 

 

Tension in the Pacific, and around the world is high as authoritarian regimes test the commitment of nations to the international rule of law.  Russia invading Ukraine or Chinese ‘coastguard’ vessels clearing Philippines, Singaporean, Vietnamese and Malaysian vessels out of the South China Sea. The South-West Pacific also has a range of small, unstable nations that require security support. In the last twenty years, New Zealand has deployed military personnel to Timor Leste, Solomon Islands and Tonga years.  Additionally, there are emergent non-state threats like the Houthi that now have access to cheap but high-tech drones and missiles.  And, less well-known but growing security threats exist like cyber-crime and the international drug trade that all require security responses. 

New Zealand’s new government is in a difficult situation, with limited funds it must decide whether it opts into wider security arrangements, accepting the additional costs and risk of being drawn into conflict in exchange for the protection these arrangements provide. The potential costs, benefits and risks are uncertain. For instance, some people argue that participation in defence relationships like AUKUS increases the risk of being drawn into conflict. However, relationships like this help protect New Zealand’s security interests (like maintaining navigation rights in the South China Sea), and its participation means the nation has greater influence on security policy in the Pacific.    

A strong argument for New Zealand’s participation in security alliances is that the country can play a key role bridging the gap between the Pacific’s small nations and the major powers. However, the toughest question for New Zealand is picking between its economic relationship with an authoritarian China; or its historic security relationships with liberal democracies like the UK, US and Australia. And, which option best secures New Zealand and the wider Pacific. 

Drugs in the Pacific

This column has highlighted the international drug trade as a key security issue in the Pacific. Indications are that this trend continues. Last week, Fijian police stopped a 12kg cocaine shipment and reported that the 169 drug crimes reported this January were nearly double the 87 reported in the same month last year. Meanwhile in Tonga, 15kg of methamphetamine was seized this week. 

More evidence of the increasing international drug trade in the Pacific.  A trade that has the potential to harm people, communities and state institutions. Large amounts of cash incentivises corruption, an especially dangerous trend in small nations with already weak state institutions.  If state institutions are undermined by corruption the security implications are significant, and some parts of the Pacific could easily become lawless increasing the risk of them being used to produce or transit more drugs. In turn, creating the conditions for more lawlessness developing a dangerous cycle of escalation and that is why the Pacific drug trade is a key security issue. 

Melanesian update 

A regular update on the Pacific’s least reported trouble spot; Melanesia. 

Ongoing war in Papua New Guinea’s Enga province takes more lives

We have discussed the inter-tribal fighting in Papua New Guinea’s Enga province before and this week ABC reported that 49 people are dead, killed in a large ambush.  The war has been going on for months demonstrating the minimal reach of state institutions into the nation’s highlands. 

The war is symptomatic of a wider trend towards lawlessness, smaller nations struggling to maintain the rule of law.  A trend likely to be aggravated by other factors like drug trading that brings large amounts of money into poor communities and establishes smuggling networks just as useful for guns as they are for the drug trade. 

As predicted political trouble in Papua New Guinea 

Papua New Guinean Prime Minister, James Marape is having a tough time, 12 MPs have now ‘crossed the floor’ and a vote on a ‘no confidence’ motion in him is expected soon.  In Papua New Guinea governments have an 18-month grace period in which ‘no confidence’ motions are not allowed. A period that recently expired.

A ‘no confidence’ motion in Papua New Guinea is likely, and is further evidence of a disturbing trend in the Pacific. Last year, several small Pacific nations waded through ‘no-confidence’ motions creating uncertainty and instability.  It is especially concerning when ‘no confidence’ motions are used to challenge decisions that are related to Sino-American competition because it raises the spectre of external influence. 

Chinese influence becomes a Solomon Islands election issue

Solomon Islands election is on 17 April 2024 and the nation’s relationship with China is set to be a key political issue. Incumbent Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare’s main opponent in the election; Peter Kenilorea Jr has committed to reassessing the nation’s security agreement with China if his party is elected. 

 

Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer, a former Officer in NZDF and TDBs Military Blogger – his work is on substack

8 COMMENTS

  1. “It is especially concerning when ‘no confidence’ motions are used to challenge decisions that are related to Sino-American competition because it raises the spectre of external influence. ”

    Hilarious. So alien American influence is an unalloyed good, to NATO Ben, but actual human nations getting involved is bad? Amazing

      • There are some people who were born in America and have betrayed the American mission to do evil throughout the world who are decent human beings. I wouldn’t slander them as pigs just because they were born in a sty, by calling them Americans.

  2. I really wish this column and Ben were questioning Aotearoas’ role in the world.

    We are no longer a British colony with a massively British population. Our traditional national and ethnic loyalties are gone.

    We are not UKs farm, that ended in 1972.
    Our military allies except for Australia are not our major export markets. China, (this columns resident enemy) is.

    There is a multipolar world emerging that is full of opportunities and dangers for us.

    It does us no favours to not examine our relationship to USA UK and to make China our enemy on their behalf. At the same time it would be equally stupid to place our trust in anybody else unless they demonstrate their good will.

    • A very perceptive comment. Our knee jerk reaction to cozy up with our traditional security partners does not serve us well. Deep strategic thinking is required now.

      It’s becoming increasingly clear that the US desire to provide the muscle behind the global trading system is starting to fritter away and with the election of Trump it’s entirely possible they could pack their bags and retreat to the western hemisphere. What then becomes of AUKUS!? I suspect it melts away.

      What about taking a Swiss armed neutrality position? Undoubtedly it would probably lead to our ejection from five eyes – whoopty doo! – and massively piss off the Aussies. But assuming we could continue to access CER with Australia I wonder whether this would be the smarter longer term play?

      The other interesting scenario is that I suspect nuclear proliferation is going to expand rapidly in the next twenty years. It’s quite possible to see South Korea, Japan and Australia all pursuing a nuclear deterrent. If this were to happen then it places serious pressure on NZ’s nuclear free position if it decides to be part of an expanded AUKUS alliance alternatively in a neutral scenario would we be exposed by not being part of a defense arrangement with a nuclear umbrella.

      Interesting times….It’s not easy to make the right call here, if we were to have a free trade agreement with the US I suspect there would be no debate, but we don’t and we’re caught between two giants lacking both economic and defense security.

      • UD, it’s a wonder more bloggers here don’t pick up on the bigger issues. You obviously don’t see with narrow focus which is refreshing. There are so many contradictory things going on you can’t afford a tunnel viewpoint. If only our political class opened their eyes.

    • It’s simple. NATO Ben wants a job at ASPI shilling for American ‘defence’ contractors. He isn’t capable of being honest.

  3. So why don’t we bring back prohibition so all the criminals who sell drugs will move to alcohol sales instead & other drugs will no longer be readily available? I suspect that other problems would happen but since I stopped using alcohol over 30 years ago I enjoy suggesting to alcohol addicts that their favorite hobby should be outlawed.

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