New Zealand’s maritime security stressed by rising threats, new Govt strategy says

New Zealand’s maritime security is “increasingly stressed” by escalating geopolitical tensions, transnational crime, illegal fishing, and rising seas, a new Government strategy says.

Among the major security risks within New Zealand’s oceans, described in the new Maritime Security Strategy, are a weakening of the law of the sea, a need to maintain global supply chains, and possible migration due to climate change.

And, in what a security expert has called a “signalling statement” about China, the strategy talks of a greater number of countries attempting to wield influence in the Pacific, which may diminish New Zealand’s standing.

“A proliferation of actors in the Pacific has the potential to impact our role as a partner of choice within the South Pacific. Some actors may support or complement our interests, while others may undermine them.”

New Zealand's maritime security stressed by rising threats, new Govt strategy says

The 40-page document was officially launched on Thursday at a conference hosted by Victoria University’s Centre for Strategic Studies, after first being published in December without fanfare by the Ministry of Transport.

The strategy details a new model for how government agencies should work together to combat maritime threats, as part of the Government’s broader national security apparatus.

“This reduces the ability of malicious and negligent actors to use the maritime domain to undermine national security interests and objectives,” the document reads.

“Deterrence has a big part to play in preventing maritime security threats. This is done by convincing potential threat actors that the costs of conducting actions that impact on New Zealand’s maritime security interest outweigh benefits.”

An example of the type of action taken, contained in the strategy, include New Zealand officials working with Pacific Island countries to better enforce sanctions against North Korean-linked vessels.

Victoria University strategic studies professor Robert Ayson, speaking at the event on Thursday, said it appeared the “deterrence” talk in the strategy would require maritime military alliances, given New Zealand’s limited military means.

He said the deterrenceNew Zealand could provide at sea appeared to be reliant on law enforcement or regulation. This was useful for tackling transnational criminals, illegal fishing, and maritime pollution, but not other countries in the region.

“I do wonder whether there’s a bit of deterrence on the cheap here … To put it more directly arrest, conviction, fines, and possibly imprisonment. That’s not fighting talk, that’s, ‘We’ll throw the book at you’.”

“How in particular does New Zealand deter unwanted state-based adversaries? … This actually means a heavy reliance on international partners.”

Dr Anna Powles​, a Pacific security studies expert at Massey University, said the strategy’s talk of state-actors that might undermine New Zealand’s interests was a “signalling statement” about China’s role in the Pacific.

“China is obviously one of those actors …. Chinese interests in the Pacific very much include maritime interests. Between 2006 and 2019, there were 24 PLA [China’s military] visits to the Pacific and more than 50 per cent were naval,” she said.

“And since 2012, the Chinese Pacific fishing fleet has grown by more than 500 per cent … We’re seeing the impact of this playing out.”

Ministry of Transport chief executive Peter Mersi​ said the threats to New Zealand’s maritime environment were “changing with speed”, requiring the creation of a maritime security sector as the existing governance model was increasingly stressed.

“Part of our role is to make sure we are thinking about all of those threats and potential threats … The nature of the threats are broad, and it’s everything from the potential for pollution, to illegal fishing, to drug trafficking, potential people trafficking.

Dan Eaton​, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s national security policy director, said a “bow-wave of challenge” could be expected in New Zealand’s maritime environment.

“We’re surrounded by water, and an awful lot of it … It’s taken the Covid-19 pandemic to remind us of that basic fact.”

He said the DPMC was trying to bring more strategy to Government’s national security system “writ large”, after the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch mosque terror attacks. The inquiry was critical of how the system had been run.

Transport Minister Michael Wood, who has assumed the new role of minister for maritime security, produced a recorded statement for the conference, in which he said the event was a “official launch” of the Government paper.

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