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US in the spotlight during Minister Mitchell’s first Asia foray

Line of Defence Magazine, Winter 2017

Mark Mitchell gives a small state perspective to the Shangri-La forum in SingaporeMark Mitchell gives a small state perspective to the Shangri-La forum in Singapore


A high-profile speech at the annual Shangri-La defence forum and the striking of a positive rapport with his Indonesian counterpart highlight Mark Mitchell’s first trip to Asia as Defence Minister, writes David Capie, Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.


New defence minister Mark Mitchell got his first taste of the increasingly complicated world of Asian geopolitics in June with visits to Indonesia and Singapore and a high-profile speech at the annual Shangri-La defence forum. Mitchell’s trip underscored the strong interest New Zealand has in trying to deepen its defence relationships in Southeast Asia, including building links with a range of new non-traditional partners. 

While the New Zealand-Singapore defence relationship has grown in leaps and bounds in the last year under the new Enhanced Partnership agreement, Indonesia has long been regarded as falling short of its potential. Bilateral defence links deteriorated in the 1990s because of human rights concerns and violence in East Timor and even after military ties were restored, progress has been limited.

Mr Mitchell’s first visit to Jakarta produced a modest Joint Statement on Defence Relations. This commits New Zealand and Indonesia to cooperate in intelligence sharing, bilateral training, visits and exchanges, but in reality it broke little new ground.

Mitchell and his Indonesian counterpart Ryamizard Ryacudu struck up a rapport, so perhaps there’s grounds for optimism that a personal connection might lead to greater engagement from Jakarta. More likely, especially under the current Jokowi administration, is that Indonesia will continue see defence ties with other nations as a higher priority.

From Jakarta, Mitchell travelled to Singapore when he attended his first meeting of the Five Power Defence Arrangements, along with defence ministers from Australia, Malaysia and Singapore (the UK was represented by its High Commissioner, as Defence Secretary Michael Fallon was tied up with the British general election).

Australian strategic thinker Coral Bell once likened the FPDA to a book where the cover remains the same but the content inside continually changes. Certainly, the five members have found themselves facing a rapidly changing security landscape in recent years, with growing tensions in the South China Sea and a greater threat from terrorism. It was notable therefore this year that the ministers committed to improve interoperability between their militaries, to share intelligence, and hinted at a greater willingness to hold exercises closer to Eastern Malaysia and the South China Sea, moves that China will not welcome.


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But the highlight of Mr Mitchell’s first visit to Asia will undoubtedly have been the chance to take part in the 16th Shangri-La Dialogue, the annual defence ministers forum hosted in Singapore by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

Past SLDs have been notable for sharp confrontations between US Chinese participants. In 2016, critical comments about Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea saw US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter get the full hairdryer treatment from China’s Admiral Sun Jianguo.

But this year Mr Mitchell would have detected a very different tone in the conference hall. Rather than China finding itself in the spotlight, it was the Trump administration’s representatives who were grilled by participants.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis underscored his reputation as one of the more orthodox members of the Trump administration with a speech that stressed significant continuities in American defence policy. He emphasised the importance of the US’s alliances, its support for the ASEAN-led regional security architecture and the importance of regional states developing their own defence capabilities. It was a speech that could have been given by Ash Carter.

But as was apparent from the questions that followed, however pleased regional delegates might have been to see Mr Mattis, they harbour serious doubts about US commitment, in large part because of the unpredictable behaviour of his boss, President Trump. Mattis seemed to acknowledge those concerns, telling the room (with a line often attributed to Churchill) that Asia should “bear with us. Once we have exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.” That comment had heads shaking around the hall.

The major beneficiary from the uncertainty provoked by the Trump administration is of course China. Beijing’s delegation was the lowest in rank it had sent to the Dialogue in a decade (no meeting with the New Zealand minister took place on the sidelines given the low rank of the PLA representative).

Throughout the conference, Chinese participants seemed largely content to ignore critical comments without a fuss. Australian PM Turnbull began the Dialogue with an assertive keynote address, which stressed the need to stand up for the rules-based order against challenges such as China poses in the South China Sea. In years past this might have been expected to draw a sharp response, but the Chinese Senior Colonel who asked the first question simply complimented the PM for his “balanced and excellent keynote address.” Beijing clearly senses things are moving in its favour.

Mr Mitchell took to the main stage for a plenary speech on the second day, speaking alongside the Russian and his Singaporean counterpart Ng Eng Hen. In contrast to many of the speakers that had gone before, Mitchell’s speech was welcome for offering the perspective of a small state.

He noted the diverse global and regional challenges New Zealand confronts and how it seeks to make a contribution: from the anti-ISIL training mission in Iraq, leading a group on cybersecurity in the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus framework, and maintaining an active security role in the South Pacific. He explained that while New Zealand might seem remote from many of the region’s security challenges, as a global trader we have a strong interest in seeing international law, especially in the maritime sphere. 

More than a few regional observers were surprised when Mitchell noted that New Zealand has the fourth largest EEZ in the world.

Besides the chance to present a New Zealand view of the regional security picture, the biggest reason ministers attend the Shangri-La Dialogue is the chance to engage in diplomatic ‘speed-dating’, setting up dozens of sideline bilaterals with counterpart delegations. As a new minister, Mitchell had a full dance card, including getting to spend extended periods of time with key partners like Mattis and Singaporean minister Ng.

Given Mr Mitchell’s background in security contracting in Iraq and the Gulf it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Middle East receives greater attention while he is minister than it has before. But if the Iraq training mission is a symbolic commitment to supporting New Zealand’s global security interests, a peaceful and stable East Asia is absolutely fundamental to New Zealand’s economic and national security.

Whether it is Mr Mitchell or someone else who is defence minister after September’s election, we should only expect to see more of this defence diplomacy with Southeast Asia. 


David Capie is Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies and Associate Professor in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington.


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