THE FARM I GREW UP ON had a paddock called “Canberra”. Not on account of any great regard the farm’s owner, my father, had for Australia’s capital city, but because that was the land he was clearing when a Canberra bomber flew low overhead. Between 1958 and 1970, the English Electric Canberra B.Mk.20 bomber was the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s principal strike aircraft. As I recall my father’s telling of the tale, a single Canberra bomber flew the length of the country to show New Zealanders what their government had purchased for their defence. As a former RNZAF officer, Tony Trotter was sufficiently impressed to name the paddock he was preparing “Canberra” in its honour.
The Canberra bombers of the RNZAF saw active service in the Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation of the mid-1960s – a military engagement about which New Zealanders know next-to-nothing. In conformity with the New Zealand Government’s determination to contribute as little as it could get away with to the escalating conflict, its Canberra bombers were not deployed in Vietnam. They were replaced in 1971 by the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk.
I well recall the Anzac Day flyovers of the Skyhawks. The shriek of their engines, their astonishing speed, the blunt message of brute power they conveyed to all who saw and heard them. Very much a case of “your defence dollars at work”.
Helen Clark’s decision, in May 2001, to eliminate the RNZAF’s strike arm reflected her conviction that New Zealand existed in “a benign strategic environment” which simply did not merit the immense outlay of taxpayers’ funds required to purchase and maintain modern strike aircraft. The decision to reduce the RNZAF to a marine surveillance, transportation and search-and-rescue operation was also seen as an expression of the Fifth Labour Government’s determination to pursue an “independent foreign policy”.
Barely four months later, with the horrors of 9/11 still fresh in their minds, New Zealanders were asking: “What do we have to stop a highjacked airliner heading straight for the heart of our largest city?” The answer turned out to be prayers, since New Zealand no longer had the wings.
Since then, New Zealand’s strategic environment has declined to a condition well short of the word “benign”. Indeed, this country is now confronted with a geopolitical situation alarmingly similar to the one New Zealand confronted ninety years ago. This time, however, the great power flexing its military muscles is not Japan, but China. Like the Japanese imperialists who inflicted so much agony on the peoples of Asia (especially the Chinese) in the 1930s and 40s, the People’s Republic of China seems equally determined to impose its own version of “The Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” all the way to Africa – and beyond.
The strategic response of the United States in the 2020s is essentially the same as its response in the 1930s. It cannot permit a geopolitical competitor to project sufficient military and economic strength across the Pacific and Indian Oceans to threaten American hegemony in those theatres. Most particularly, the United States cannot contemplate in 2023, any more than it could in 1942, the loss of Australia and New Zealand. Stripped of these strategic anchors in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, the United States ability to project its power would be severely compromised.
Hence the creation of AUKUS, the first step on the journey to JAINZUS – Japan, Australia, India, New Zealand and the United States – which is the most obvious military and economic combination for containing Chinese ambitions. The inclusion of the United Kingdom in the present AUKUS grouping serves sentimental rather than strategic purposes. The UK was too weak to defend its own empire in the 1940s. It’s even weaker now.
That New Zealand will become a member of JAINZUS (or whatever it ends up being called) is inevitable. These islands are too important to be left to their own devices. If we don’t throw in with the Americans and their mates, then we will be forced to throw in with the Chinese. (Not that the Americans will let it get to that point, not while they have the Aussies to keep us in line!)
My father’s generation, having been rescued by the US Navy, understood the importance of forward defence. Which is why whoever is ploughing “Canberra” in 2025 will likely re-name it “F-35A Lightning II”.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 April 2023.