19 Apr 2024

Luxon boosts defence amid rising global tensions

From Focus on Politics, 7:00 pm on 19 April 2024
Focus on Politics: Collage of Christopher Luxon in front of snapshots from his tour of SE Asia

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon   Photo: RNZ

"Together we are committed to stepping up our defence relationship" - Christopher Luxon

As global tensions escalated this week, Prime Minister Christopher Luxon was touring South East Asia, strengthening defence and security ties. 

Back home, his government was accused of drifting away from New Zealand's independent foreign policy. 

Iran launched hundreds of missiles and drones in a direct attack on Israel on Sunday (New Zealand Time), an attack in retaliation for a deadly strike on Iran's consulate in the Syrian capital Damascus. 

Leaders around the world called for calm, and Luxon - en route to Singapore for his first major foreign mission - updated media during a brief refuelling stop in Cairns, condemning the attack and warning against wider escalation.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon is welcomed by his Singaporean counterpart, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, at the Istana - the official residence of the president, Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Luxon with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong Photo: Dan Brunskill

Tensions in the Middle East were raised in all Luxon's sitdowns with Southeast Asian leaders, and the first - Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong gave a stark assessment of the situation. He warned that while small nations could not solve the crisis, they had to speak out, otherwise "you are saying the only way is the way of the sword and I think that's going to lead to calamity for everybody".

The global environment is fraught. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has entered its third year, and the continued power struggle between China and the US continues - with Donald Trump's possible return to the White House also in the mix. 

Christopher Luxon on Tuk Tuk tour in Bangkok, April 2024.

Luxon takes a Tuk Tuk tour of Bangkok Photo: Dan Brunskill

Deepening economic and security ties with South East Asia was the focus of Luxon's week-long mission abroad. He talked up the prospect of stronger defence ties with Singapore, potentially even allowing its drones into New Zealand airspace

He also secured agreement from Thai counterpart Srettha Thavisin to increase communication and interoperability between the countries' defence forces, and there was similar talk on the final leg of the trip in the Philippines

It comes at a pivotal time for regional security - with the Philippines and China clashing over the South China Sea. Just this week, the Philippines and the US announced plans for an expansive military drill starting Monday - a warfare simulation in nearby waters. Beijing was not happy, saying it would only lead to greater insecurity. 

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and Philippines President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Romualdez Marcos Jr make a joint statement promising an increase in trade and closer defence cooperation.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon with Philippines President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Romualdez Marcos Jr. Photo: Daniel Brunskill

Philippines President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Romualdez Marcos Jr highlighted the matter in the joint media conference with Luxon, saying the country welcomed New Zealand's "continued commitment to advocate for the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including through the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea". 

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With Luxon away, a rift back home was appearing in New Zealand's longstanding bipartisan approach to foreign policy, with Labour politicians voicing suspicion the government was shifting its approach. Leader Chris Hipkins said the AUKUS defence pact between Australia, the US and UK was a prime example. 

When the partnership was first announced in 2021, the then Prime Minister Dame Jacinda Ardern made clear New Zealand was not involved in the nuclear submarine deal. The US later suggested New Zealand could one day join, and then-Minister Andrew Little a few months on said he was willing to explore involvement in the tech-focused Pillar 2. 

In February, Defence, Space and Technology Minister Judith Collins said officials would work to see what opportunities it could have. Foreign Minister Winston Peters on a trip to Washington in April said there were "powerful reasons" for New Zealand to join. 

Former prime minister Helen Clark and former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr have been a vocal critics of the pact, and were invited by Labour to explain why at a panel at Parliament. Labour is yet to firm up its position on the deal, but has certainly cooled on the idea of getting involved - and its Foreign Affairs spokesperson David Parker argued the "strong noises" from the government about joining was "a major shift in foreign policy". 

Labour MP David Parker

Labour's Foreign Affairs spokesperson David Parker (file photo) Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Professor of International Relations Robert Patman, who also participated in the panel, agreed.

"The current government is declaring that AUKUS 2 is integral to what it calls ever-closer relations to the United States, so it's made a linkage that wasn't previously available, and so that is a qualitative shift. And also, there hasn't been much public consultation," he said.

The government insists its position has not changed, although Luxon repeatedly refused to commit to public consultation ahead of any deal being signed.

It's understood Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters will make clear New Zealand's position on AUKUS as part of a major speech in a few weeks' time. With news on Friday afternoon of an Israeli missile striking Iran, the world could be a very different place by then.

In this week's Focus on Politics, Political Reporter Katie Scotcher recaps Prime Minister Christopher Luxon's South East Asia Mission, which took place amid rising global tensions.

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