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ew Zealand has stamped out COVID-19! At least, that was the headline in the middle of June 2020. At the time of writing, New Zealand authorities are trying to constrain a fresh outbreak caused by two new arrivals who were allowed to leave their mandatory 14-day quarantine to visit a sick relative. The New Zealand military has been called in to enforce quarantine procedures, and the “border bungle” has been the subject of a slew of more negative headlines around the world. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expressed her “fury” at the mistake, and the country is currently strengthening procedures to include mandatory testing for all quarantined arrivals. As New Zealand has now learned, small mistakes can make a big difference in dealing with pandemics, and effective implementation of protective measures is crucial. 

Prior to these latest — more negative — developments, New Zealand’s response to COVID-19 had been hailed as an exemplar. The measures taken by the government ranked as the most stringent in the world, and the early lockdown procedures saved lives, stopped the spread of the virus and enabled the New Zealand economy to reopen. But at the same time, COVID-19 has laid bare the risks and vulnerabilities of small states in a global security environment characterized by large volumes of tourism and immigration, and dependencies in international student and agricultural markets and on vital supplies. The precedent of the military being involved in border security operations also raises serious questions: Why are New Zealand’s civilian agencies not up to the task? What role should military and intelligence agencies have in enhancing biosecurity and fighting pandemics? And can a country such as New Zealand be resilient to these types of risks while maintaining its free and open society?

Human Security: Putting People First

When the novel coronavirus first spread to New Zealand, Ardern urged the country to “go hard” and “go early” in responding to the threat. While this was a phrase more commonly used in the dressing room of an All Blacks rugby test, it was one that the New Zealand people understood and responded to. Ardern’s response to COVID-19 followed a pattern she established since she came to office almost three years ago. After the Christchurch terror attacks, she was hailed for her compassion and empathy in embracing New Zealand’s Muslim community. “They are us,” she said. And when she brought her baby daughter into the UN assembly hall, she made a powerful statement about the nature of women’s leadership in the twenty-first century.

Ardern’s human-centred approach to leadership is also part of a broader historical pattern in New Zealand’s foreign and security policy. Dissatisfied with the power politics of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race between the great powers, New Zealand enacted a ban on nuclear-powered and armed ships entering its waters, which led to the sundering of New Zealand’s alliance with the United States (as part of the Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty). In the post-Cold War era, New Zealand continued to put people first, engaging in peacekeeping and peacekeeping operations and protecting vulnerable populations from harm from their governments, including in Bosnia and East Timor. After September 11, New Zealand sent a provincial reconstruction team to Afghanistan to help build infrastructure, education and health care, and the Helen Clark government (1999–2008) made the controversial decision to disband New Zealand’s fighter aircraft capability.

Biosecurity has long been a foundational part of New Zealand’s security architecture, and its expertise in this area has helped New Zealand respond to the COVID-19 intrusion.

New Zealand security policy has thus been geared toward soft security issues rather than war fighting. This approach has informed the country’s response to COVID-19. New Zealand has not followed other countries in declaring a “war on COVID-19,” and “securitizing” rhetoric has largely been absent in the New Zealand context. What the crisis has done is highlight the continued reorientation of New Zealand’s approach to national security to a more human-security-based approach, including using the military for humanitarian missions, such as providing disaster assistance. 

The human security concept emerged in the post-Cold War era through UN processes and involves shifting the focus of security policy away from the nation-state to a focus on people and communities. In this respect, this approach is also attuned to Indigenous teachings and understandings of security, which commonly emphasize Maori’s (tangata whenua [people of the land]) spiritual, cultural and ecological relationship with indigenous flora and fauna. It also fits with New Zealand’s long-held concerns about biosecurity, including risks to the New Zealand agricultural market from introduced pests and diseases and protection of New Zealand waterways from invasive bacteria. Biosecurity has long been a foundational part of New Zealand’s security architecture, and its expertise in this area has helped New Zealand respond to the COVID-19 intrusion.

Economic Security: A Nation Adrift?

Putting people first in national security and foreign policy is not easy without recognizing their economic needs, including protecting people from the widening social and economic inequities that will result from the COVID-19 crisis. Despite New Zealand’s relative success in dealing with infection rates and the very low casualty figures (22 deaths in total), the economic shock to New Zealand will be profound. New Zealand’s finance minister has emphasized that the crisis will be “a quantum greater” than the 2008 global financial crisis, with greater job losses and a financial bill for business wage subsidies of around NZ$12 billion.

New Zealand’s recovery from the crisis, and its broader economic outlook, will depend on a diversification of its trade markets. This involves a security strategy that recognizes economic factors and risks, including developing secure trading relationships and diverse markets for New Zealand’s main exports (agricultural products), the inflow of tourist dollars (NZ$34 billion a year), and the secure import of energy and critical goods. Economic analyses in these areas show that New Zealand, as a small and geographically isolated state, is particularly vulnerable. According to analyst Anne-Marie Brady, New Zealand is dangerously dependent on China: half of New Zealand’s imports come from China, including strategic goods, and New Zealand has a significant export dependency on China, with 33 percent of New Zealand’s dairy exports, 42 percent of meat exports, 58 percent of log and timber exports, 38 percent of seafood exports and 47 percent of wool exports going to China. With growth in the Chinese economy set to decline from 6.8 to 1.2 percent between 2019 and 2020, New Zealand will need to monitor the impact in these areas.

Ironically, after the United Kingdom joined the European Union in 1973, New Zealand’s trade focus was on Asia. Now, the European market is coming under greater attention in New Zealand trade policy circles. New Zealand has entered negotiations for a free trade agreement with a Brexited Britain, and the need to secure its long-held goal of a free trade agreement with the European Union has taken on a new urgency.

New Zealand’s COVID-19 Geopolitics

What does all this mean for New Zealand’s national security approach? One of the first questions New Zealand will have to grapple with is the geopolitical implications of COVID-19, including the shape of its engagement with China. Lax hygiene practices in wet markets, a tendency on the part of the Chinese government to restrict access to information urgently needed by other countries, and the widespread disinformation the Chinese regime has been putting out since the COVID-19 crisis emerged should raise big concerns about New Zealand’s evolving relationship with China. New Zealand is dependent on China for its agricultural exports and won’t want to fall into a direct dispute with Beijing. When New Zealand instituted a travel ban, China’s ambassador to New Zealand was critical, saying that it would affect “people’s sentiment.” New Zealand’s declared support for Taiwan joining the World Health Organization (WHO) was greeted with even fiercer words from Beijing, with a Chinese foreign policy spokesperson saying that China “deplores and opposes” New Zealand’s position. 

Tensions in New Zealand’s relationship with China are likely to strengthen calls within New Zealand for closer alignment with our traditional security partners, including the United States, and through the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States). Indeed, one of the most notable developments in recent weeks has been discussions around the Five Eyes becoming a forum that moves beyond intelligence sharing to a more sustained dialogue on matters of mutual economic interest to the five countries. While some more skeptical observers might characterize this move as “mission creep,” an attempt by the intelligence community to expand the scope of its activities and/or a focus on too narrow a group of countries, it could be a natural and sensible attempt to reorient intelligence gathering for a new era in which economic risks are arguably greater than military ones. New Zealand does not face a direct military threat, but better economic intelligence will be vital to protect New Zealand’s economy from similar shocks in the coming years. Interestingly, the Five Eyes group recently met to discuss Beijing’s tightening of its control in Hong Kong, with New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters suggesting “China’s decision to pass a new national security law for Hong Kong has fundamentally changed the environment for international engagement there.”

It should be noted that this direction of travel is also fraught with risks. Overreach by New Zealand intelligence agencies has not been welcomed by the New Zealand public, and the political implications will also be under scrutiny. In this respect, the extent of New Zealand’s closeness with Washington will also be under question. US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the WHO is another blow to the rules-based order on which small states such as New Zealand depend, and will give ammunition to those in New Zealand who want to chart a more independent foreign policy not tied to the whims of an increasingly volatile and unreliable partner in Washington. Whether New Zealand can continue to trust and rely on its US partner, and the extent of New Zealand’s closeness with the unpredictable Trump administration, are increasingly on the minds of New Zealand’s security analysts.

Risk and Resilience in a New National Security Strategy

The COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity for a deeper rethink about what we mean by security in the New Zealand context. Further strengthening New Zealand’s human security approach could have a number of benefits for New Zealand as it moves forward from the current crisis, including avoiding excessive state surveillance of New Zealand society by contact-tracing data and apps, empowering local people and communities to be active in responding to the threat from pandemics, enhancing understanding about border security and health and biological risks to New Zealand, and clarifying the role of the military and intelligence agencies in New Zealand’s changing national security approach. 

The COVID-19 pandemic could also empower New Zealand’s engagement in its own region, the South Pacific, where the capability to respond to pandemics is far lower than in other parts of the world. New Zealand has historically had a strong role in its near region, and the country is home to a large Pacific diaspora (set to rise to 10 percent of its population by 2026). Keeping the region connected and safe is a core part of New Zealand’s national security remit. New Zealand naval operations have already been impacted by COVID-19, including through a reduction in the number of patrols to counter illegal fishing in Fijian waters and not being able to board vessels. There has also been an impact on migrant agricultural workers. In late June 2020, the New Zealand Air Force assisted with the repatriation of more than 1,000 seasonal agricultural workers from Vanuatu, the biggest international airlift out of the country in 25 years.  

Creating a resilient economy and society is a long-term project — one that could help avoid political risks and the construction of external enemies.

While the concept of resilience is mentioned in some places in New Zealand’s approach to security, including in its cyber strategy and disaster response plan, the concept could be a better fit for a more general New Zealand national and regional security strategy in a post-COVID-19 era. Resilience in security policy entails shifting the focus from avoiding catastrophic events to mitigating their effects and enabling rapid recovery. The resilience concept has often been seen as one that avoids creating “us and them” dynamics. The tendency to blame the virus on China, rightly or wrongly, has been a prominent one but fails to address the overall risks that New Zealand faces from climate change-related pandemics that could emanate from anywhere in its broader region. Resilience is also a potentially useful way of reformulating New Zealand’s security strategy because it provides a longer-term view and mechanism for planning, thus avoiding some of the short-termism inherent in many debates about security and defence in modern democracies and, indeed, the whims of any particular US presidential administration. Creating a resilient economy and society is a long-term project — one that could help avoid political risks and the construction of external enemies and allow New Zealand to sidestep the acrimony in the China versus the United States debate. 

Lastly, a reorientation of New Zealand’s national security policy on the basis of risk as opposed to threat would be a sensible way forward. Such risks are myriad, including earthquakes, biohazards, attacks by extremists, energy shocks due to geopolitical disputes elsewhere on the globe and the broader effects of climate change, including droughts, population displacement and state failure in New Zealand’s own region. Such an “all hazards” approach is increasingly being recognized in New Zealand defence policy, including in the New Zealand Defence Force climate change defence assessment. But a more sustained and wide-ranging focus on risk and resilience could form the basis of a fresh new direction for New Zealand’s security policy as it moves on from the COVID-19 crisis.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • Joe Burton is senior lecturer in international security at the New Zealand Institute for Security and Crime Science, University of Waikato, New Zealand.