New Zealand’s most recent defence assessment identified climate change and geostrategic competition as the two greatest security challenges to our place in the South Pacific.
To the first issue, partners engaging and re-engaging with Pacific Island Countries are finding that climate change is a security and existential threat in our part of the world. As defence leaders we cannot view climate change as something that only others must grapple with.
But today I want to focus on that second challenge, increasing geostrategic competition in the Pacific and Indian Oceans regions. That issue poses significant risks of miscalculation – particularly when nuclear weapons are part of the calculus.
A number of issues over many years have converged to heighten tensions in our wider region. These include:
- Larger economies significantly growing their military spending and capabilities,
- Intensification of military exercising and challenges to freedoms of navigation,
- Destabilising actions in the South China and East China Seas,
- Rhetoric and actions that might disrupt the peaceable status quo across the Taiwan Strait,
- A Pacific Rim state, Russia, defying the rules-based international order with its unlawful and immoral invasion of Ukraine,
- And the development of long-range ballistic missiles by a pariah state, North Korea.
Added to that difficult environment we have the threat of nuclear weapons. We have seen:
- Rhetoric around the possible use of nuclear weapons becoming more prominent, including false categorisations of so-called tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons,
- States in the region adding to their nuclear weapons stockpiles, including North Korea,
- And growing concerns about a deficit of prudent transparency about the real size of those stockpiles.
New Zealand’s longstanding position on nuclear weapons has no ambiguity.
We believe all nuclear weapons should be verifiably and irreversibly eliminated, because there are no circumstances in which their use could be morally justified.
It is not possible to confine all of the effects of the use of nuclear weapons to a period of kinetic engagement or a zone of conflict. It necessarily follows that the use of nuclear weapons would also breach the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law.
We know this because the South Pacific is where superpowers once tested their atomic weapons.
On this issue my country ‘walks the talk’. For 35 years we have had legislation absolutely prohibiting the acquisition, stationing and testing of nuclear weapons in New Zealand.
Nuclear-powered vessels have also been banned in our waters since the Cold War, and this will not change.
Like many states, New Zealand has ratified nuclear non-proliferation and test ban treaties.
An example of this is the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga which established the South Pacific nuclear free zone, and to which we are fully committed.
However it is apparent that international institutions are limited in their ability to act in cases were nuclear super-powers are in conflict.
It is also clear that the mechanisms for the management of crises are lacking, let alone the means to facilitate wider strategic dialogue.
The failure to fully implement verifiable and irreversible elimination of all nuclear weapons is what prompted New Zealand to negotiate and to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This is the first global treaty to provide for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, which would provide the only guarantee that they will never be used again.
It is not enough to cross our fingers and hope for the best. Rational analysis and cool heads are required in the present circumstances. When we see the rising geopolitical tensions and the limited effectiveness of some international institutions, then we must acknowledge that the presence of nuclear weapons, adds a risk of miscalculation that could be truly catastrophic.
For small liberal democracies like New Zealand, we do not get to avoid the real-life effects of geostrategic competition. Our way of life, including the freedoms we cherish and which are guaranteed to all peoples by the UN Charter, can never be fully safeguarded from the effects of nuclear conflict in a world that tolerates nuclear weapons.
But New Zealanders know that our views on nuclear weapons are not shared by everyone. We acknowledge that, in the end, it is for sovereign states to determine how they will ensure their national security, consistent with international law. Do not confuse my country’s moral clarity with wishful thinking.
So New Zealanders must be prepared to equip ourselves with trained defence personnel, assets and materiel, and appropriate international relationships to protect our own national security. And we are.
We are increasing our military spending and modernising our capabilities across land, sea and air. We have our most precious assets, our people, deployed to hot spots around the world.
My country has a range of security commitments and partnerships, not only with our neighbours but also beyond our region. We value the trust our partners place in us, and we will uphold our promises to them.
And we retain our focus on strengthening multilateral and regional institutions and their role in promoting the safety and prosperity of everyone.
These efforts would be strengthened by a nuclear free region and world. Were it so we could all focus on the other pressing security issues we all face, such as climate change.
New Zealand looks with clear eyes at the world and our own security. We will stand prepared, and will maintain the military capability necessary to contribute to the rules based international order and protection of our free and democratic way of life now and in the future.
Footage of the event is available on the IISS Youtube page.