Work at the Ministry of Defence to deepen New Zealand’s defence relationships around the world hasn’t lost momentum, despite COVID-19 lockdowns and a rapid move to online engagements.
When New Zealand went into lockdown in March last year, International Branch Director, Mike wondered if his calendar of engagements would also go into isolation.
In Mike’s 20 years working in defence diplomacy, he had never seen such a rapid and disruptive event grind the world to a halt.
“It was unprecedented. It was the black swan that no one was expecting,” says Mike.
“We had always talked about it but we weren’t expecting it to occur so quickly. Virtually overnight every country around the world had to grapple with a global health pandemic and lockdowns.”
Mike says his team, which is focused on the Southeast Asian region, was fortunate to have already well-established online relationships.
After an initial lull in engagements, multilateral and bilateral conversations quickly moved online.
Mike’s colleague Sophia, a graduate from Victoria University of Wellington, says the virtual way of working has brought a number of benefits.
“We’re a small team based at the bottom of the world, so it’s been great to have New Zealand at the table more often. Because we aren’t tied up flying or in transit, we’ve been able to take part in more discussions around the world. I’ve been able to attend a number working groups run by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which I couldn’t have otherwise.”
There’s also been some light-hearted interactions, you wouldn’t normally see in a face to face bilateral or multilateral meeting.
“One of the funnier moments in an engagement happened last year when the sun come up in Russia behind a delegate, and all the attendees could see it! Here we were, half past five in the evening and ready to go home, and there they were just starting their day. It was amusing. We’ve also worked with delegates in the United States as their clock struck 12, midnight. The dedication of defence officials around the world has been round the clock,” said Mike.
Another time, a fire alarm went off in New Zealand mid-meeting, forcing Sophia and her colleagues to make a quick exit.
“We had to say our good byes and leave the building with speed, while the other delegates around the world looked on and wished us well,” said Sophia.
The Ministry of Defence leads on New Zealand’s defence diplomacy efforts, working with counterparts around the world to foster understanding and collaboration.
In the International Branch, Mike’s team works in partnership with NZDF personnel to prepare statements and briefings on South East Asian issues for senior Defence officials, such as the Minister of Defence, Secretary of Defence, or Deputy Secretaries of Defence. Their key goal is to foster and support the international rules-based order, and help partners in the region build confidence and trusting relationships.
But the team says COVID-19 has brought some challenges.
“As with any international video call, different countries have different broadband capabilities and they might use different video conferencing programmes too. This can lead to a few delays or dropouts. When this happens we follow-up with a request for a transcript, so it’s not an insurmountable problem”.
Mike says remote meetings also reinforce the importance of face to face defence diplomacy, particularly for distant countries like New Zealand.
“In Southeast Asia, personal relationships are really important. That’s why we’ve always focused on building close interpersonal relationships, not just in the formal meetings but also in the activities that happen around them. Cultural programmes and social events are really important and I guess in the last year we’ve not been able to take part in those activities, so we’ve lost some connections when personnel change overseas.”
Mike says participation in a range of Defence forums allows New Zealand to gain a deeper insight or understanding of the views of its partners.
“These forums are an opportunity for New Zealand to state its own position on security issues. ASEAN is in the driving seat for everything that goes on in the Indo-Pacific region, not only in defence but also in the foreign affairs and trade space.”
“Defence diplomacy is part of a broader tapestry of international engagement. We talk about security issues, the Indo-Pacific construct, climate change, and other non-traditional security issues such as disaster relief, search and rescue, counter-piracy and major power rivalry.”
Ministry of Defence staff work in close partnership with NZDF personnel and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade staff on defence diplomacy, as well as a range of other government agencies and non-government organisations too.