Aussies and Kiwis are at odds on defense readiness

Australia regards New Zealand's plan to downsize military as

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Ask New Zealanders what it is that makes their country unique among Western nations, and those here in the capital will sometimes point to the array of ships berthed along the shoreline of this picturesque harbor.

None of these military boats, they often say with a note of pride, are nuclear-armed or -powered, not since 1987, when the New Zealand government banned nuclear vessels from entering its waterways.

Now, locals can point to the skyways, too, which the government this week effectively declared a military-free zone.

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Prime Minister Helen Clark announced that her center-left government will sell its air force combat jets, cut back Navy funding, and buy new equipment to enable its Army to play a more prominent role in international peacekeeping.

By selling its 17 A4 Skyhawk combat jets and 17 training jets, the government also will eliminate as many as 700 jobs.

The changes are the most significant shift in defense strategy since passage of the antinuclear legislation, which soured relations with many of New Zealand's traditional allies, particularly its much larger neighbor, Australia, and the United States.

The decision - taken, says Ms. Clark, because the country faces no obvious external threat and is situated in what she describes as being an "incredibly benign" region - ends the air-to-ground strike capability that successive administrations have jealously maintained since World War II.

Although New Zealand has faced the possibility of armed invasion just once in the past 60 years - by Japan in the early 1940s - its armed forces have played a role in all of the major conflicts during the same time to have involved American and Australian troops.

Clark's government touts the latest move as a way for New Zealand to forge more of an independent regional identity while remaining more fully involved in any future defense operations abroad in which New Zealand is asked to serve.

The country's premier says the military now will be able to concentrate on what it does best, which lately has been training and equipping its forces to take part in United Nations-led peacekeeping operations. It most recently deployed 600 troops to help quell the unrest in the wake of the 1999 independence vote in East Timor. At the same time, the country stands to save nearly NZ$1 billion (US$424 million) over the next decade from this week's decision.

But the move isn't going down well with some. "It's a policy of isolationism," says Gerald Hensley, a former secretary of defense. "I realize that's a loaded term, but I'm not sure there's a better one."

New Zealand, he says, "no longer wants to tangle with the outside world ... except in limited, peacekeeping roles. But what will New Zealand do on any future occasion when it has to face serious, immediate trouble in the region?"

By whittling down its armed capabilities in the name of independence, Mr. Hensley says, New Zealand may find itself more dependent on outside help.

That's the substance of Australian criticism of the decision as well. An editorial in the Australian newspaper yesterday called the plan cynical, and accused New Zealand of expecting Australia to defend it. "Without saying so, New Zealand is relying on the strategic reality that its defense interests are inextricably linked to Australia's, not just at home but on foreign soil," said the editorial. "After a history of fruitful cooperation, it now seems the temptation for our neighbor to freeload has proved irresistible."

Both former British colonies, the two countries have had strong military ties almost since their inception. They shared what is widely perceived as one of their greatest nation-building moments during World War I, when their soldiers fought side by side as members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.

But according to analyst Michael O'Connor, executive director of the Australian Defense Association, a defense lobby group, that military relationship has been put under increasing strain over the past two decades.

The main reason, he says, is that Australia has solidified its relationship with the US. Australia is one of the few supporters worldwide of the Bush administration's plans for a missile-defense shield. New Zealand, meanwhile, has doggedly pursued the antinuclear agenda that saw it frozen out of the trilateral ANZUS alliance in the early 1980s.

"The general view around Australia is that New Zealand has been riding on our backs for some time," Mr. O'Connor says. "We've done our best to keep them in the family, but I think this may be the last straw."

O'Connor and others argue that New Zealand's decision to focus on peacekeeping in itself could put additional demands on Australia and other allies.

New Zealand troops are now in East Timor as part of an Australian-led UN peacekeeping force. The two countries have also mounted joint peacekeeping missions in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and New Zealand peacekeepers can be found in hotspots from the Balkans and the Middle East to Africa.

But analysts argue that New Zealand's downgrading of its military will increase its reliance on allies for logistical support and transportation to and from crisis areas. "They are going to have to hitch a ride wherever they go," O'Connor says. What's more, he argues, the needs associated with peacekeeping are changing.

Nowadays, making the peace can often be part of keeping the peace, he says, and for that peacekeepers need to have training for combat, something New Zealanders may not receive in the future as the changes take hold.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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