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ISSN 2816-1971

  • Alex Tan and Neel Vanvari

Protecting Our ‘Taonga’: How New Zealand Can Contribute to Regional Stability

With an Exclusive Economic Zone fifteen times the size of its landmass, the onus is on New Zealand to defend it, but its inability to effectively do so is something that needs to be discussed in the mainstream discourse.

A NZDF naval vessel sailing pass an iceberg
Image credit: Defence Technology Agency

*This article was first published in an edited form by The Diplomat on July 25, 2023*

As the headwinds of great power politics and a sharpening of the US-China rivalry have begun to affect its own Pacific neighbourhood, New Zealand has attempted to grapple with the fallout of these developments on regional security and stability. In three recent speeches on foreign policy, New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has consistently focused on the issue of regional security. The phrases ‘worsening strategic environment’ and ‘rising tensions in the region’ have featured regularly in these speeches. His predecessor, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, expressed similar concerns with the words ‘its grim out there’ when discussing regional security challenges for New Zealand.

New Zealand has already voiced its concern over regional instability resulting from the security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China which has the potential to increase Chinese military presence in its South Pacific neighbourhood. The country has also frequently expressed its alarm at the deterioration of the rules-based international order in recent years, as it sees the erosion of this rules-based order as a challenge to its own interests and priorities in its Pacific neighbourhood and beyond. New Zealand’s 2023 Strategic Foreign Policy Assessment Document itself noted that “the Pacific is no longer strategically benign”.

New Zealand has significant strategic and economic interests in the Pacific. Since 2018, Wellington has reorientated its foreign policy further towards the Pacific through initiatives such as the ‘Pacific Reset’ and the ‘Pacific Resilience’, which according to the Foreign Minister, foster a “Pacific-centric view of our collective interests in the region”. Unlike most small states, New Zealand has significant marine resources as it has one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in the world. With an area covering nearly 430 million hectares (4 million sq kms or 1.5 million sq miles) and being 15 times the size of the country’s land mass. Furthermore, this estimate does not include or contain the maritime area of the constituent units which form the Realm of New Zealand- Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau and the Ross Dependency.

With an EEZ being 15 times the size of the country’s land mass and thus in contrast to its significant maritime claim, New Zealand has one of the smallest navies in the world. The country’s naval fleet currently stands at nine ships, consisting primarily of frigates, logistical support vessels and patrol vessels. This contrast is even starker when compared to other small states. For instance, Singapore has 40 warships when it has only slightly over 1000 square kms in EEZ, making it one of the smallest EEZs in the world whereas New Zealand has 9 warships when it lays claim to the fifth largest EEZ in the world. Put differently, Singapore has 1 ship to patrol every 25 sq kms of its EEZ, whereas New Zealand has 1 ship to patrol every 444,444 sq kms of its EEZ.

The availability of limited assets to effectively patrol its own EEZ poses significant challenges at a time when the regional security architecture is in a state of flux. Without the capability of adequately safeguarding its own resources in its own maritime claim, New Zealand has limited means of ensuring that its resources are not being exploited by other actors. Resource exploitation, such as external actors overfishing in the EEZ of a sovereign state, is not new. Nor is this an abstract concern as demonstrated in the South China Sea where Filipino fishermen have been denied fishing access in their own EEZ by Chinese maritime militia. There is already evidence of such resource exploitation taking place in the Pacific, with overfishing being identified as a key challenge for the region. In addition, with the limited capacity and capability to even protect and patrol its own EEZ, New Zealand runs the risk of being over reliant on its allies and partners for its own economic security. This limited capacity and capability to patrol such a vast maritime area has led some to question whether Wellington has been ‘free riding’ on its partners and allies for its own security, given the strict limits on its assets and abilities.

Beyond its own EEZ, New Zealand has responsibilities and commitments to its Pacific Island neighbours, assisting them in patrolling and safeguarding their own EEZs. These EEZs are abundant in resources such as fisheries, delicate ecological ecosystems, minerals as well as natural gas and oil reserves. So not only does New Zealand have limited ability to monitor and manage its own EEZ, it is also constrained in being able fulfil these international obligations to its Pacific Island neighbours. Taken together, this presents a starkly different picture from the image of a country that frequently claims to “punch above its weight” on the international stage. As a small state, New Zealand has consistently stated that it views the rules-based international order to be the central plank of its foreign policy. Wellington has also raised its concern over the undermining of this rules-based order in this age of great power competition. But talking the talk is one thing and walking the walk is another. New Zealand seems very hesitant or reluctant to share the burden of maintaining this rules-based international order that it tremendously gained from. Simply put, New Zealand has not kept up with investment in its own capability to protect its own EEZ (to say the least). From 1960 to 2021, New Zealand spent an average of 1.92 percent of its GDP in defense spending. In 2021, that figure has dropped to 1.37 percent. In effect, New Zealand runs the risk of burdening its allies with the responsibilities of its own security and that of its neighbours.

There is no denying that the existing rules-based international order has benefitted a small state like New Zealand. However, if the country wishes to prevent the erosion of this international system, then it must contribute adequately to its resilience and protection. A first step would be to transform the current scenario to one where New Zealand is burden-shifting by taking charge and playing a more assertive role in its own area of responsibility.

By investing in its own capabilities to effectively monitor its EEZ, New Zealand will be able to take more ownership in the management of its own economic security. While the government’s 2018 purchase of four Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft was a step in the right direction, there is still a great need to enhance the country’s naval assets to ensure that it can sufficiently patrol its own EEZ and that of its Pacific neighbours. Investment in assets, such as long-range coast guard patrol vessels (or cutters), which can effectively patrol these EEZs and more crucially, fulfil the function of deterrence and law enforcement, will be a positive measure which will reduce the threat posed by ‘malign actors’.

Currently, the New Zealand Coast Guard is a voluntary non-governmental organisation which has no powers for law enforcement. Modifying and institutionalising the Coast Guard by equipping them with appropriate assets such as white hull ships which are lighter than frigates but can cover long distances can fill this gap. Through measures like these, New Zealand also has the added advantage of improving interoperability with its allies and partners. If New Zealand can effectively patrol and monitor its own EEZ, that of its Realm and its Pacific Island neighbours, it frees up the assets of its partners such as Australia and the US, who can focus on parts of the Indo-Pacific further afield. By effectively investing in assets which can enforce the laws of the seas in the wider South Pacific region, New Zealand can work with its partners to effectively burden-shift and play a meaningful part in maintaining the rules-based international order which it relies upon. Such investments, however, in its own defence capabilities should not be interpreted as a call to war or New Zealand becoming a pawn in a great power rivalry between the US and China. Instead, the onus is on New Zealand to protect its own ‘taonga’ or treasure that its vast EEZ provides. After all, as the Prime Minister stated, “we cannot forget that New Zealand’s security begins at home”.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.


Alexander C. Tan is principal research fellow at the Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs, and professor of political science and international relations at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

Neel Vanvari is research fellow at the Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs, and PhD candidate in political science at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand



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