How to better co-ordinate maritime surveillance in the Pacific was one of the key issues discussed by defence ministers at the first ever regional defence summit in Tonga this week.
The New Zealand defence minister, Jonathan Coleman, told Don Wiseman that there is a need for a multi sectorial approach to all security issues - defence, as well as climate change, transnational crime, disaster assistance and maritime surveillance:
COLEMAN: What's really coming out of this is that we've already got a very good exercise programme, which we're going to continue with. There's going to be an issue in the future around the patrol boats programme, so the maritime surveillance is going to be a challenge. But since that programme first started, we've now got the offshore patrol vessels, two of those, which patrol up in the Pacific region for three months this year. That will increase to six months next year. We also contribute Orion flights. We had half a dozen this year, there's going to be 10 next year. So we're going to look at what are the outcomes that we need from maritime surveillance patrolling programmes and how can we best deliver those? So a lot of this meeting was about a stocktake of what we're already doing and ensuring that efforts in the region around security are properly co-ordinated. So I wouldn't paint it as enhanced or stepping up military engagement. It's more around Defence's place in a broader security context.
WISEMAN: Going back some time, there has been some talk about a ready reaction force, possibly in some place like Brisbane, that could easily step into problems, whether it's a disaster or some of the issues that have gone down in the Solomon Islands or Bougainville or whatever. Is that still being talked about?
COLEMAN: That concept, I think, has evolved. At the time that was envisaged as a force based there. The reality with defence reform and how our forces operate, that's probably not practical. But what we are able to do is quickly deploy troops in response to, say, a humanitarian disaster and co-ordinate quickly. So part of achieving that level of interoperability is regular exercising, whether it's the Australians, also involving other nations with an interest in the Pacific, so when it really does happen we can deploy very quickly. If you look at the White Paper, at the heart of that is a joint amphibious taskforce and that is going to be the basis on which we are going to be able to deploy very quickly into the Pacific and we are going to be able to very quickly become inter-operable with people like the Australians, the Tongans and perhaps the US, whoever else might be interested.
WISEMAN: In terms of this inter-operability, Tonga is the only Pacific island country that you'll be doing that with?
COLEMAN: It depends in what terms you're talking. For instance, the Patrol Boat Programme, that is run across a range of nations.
WISEMAN: That's an Australian thing, isn't it? New Zealand is not directly involved in that.
COLEMAN: Well, we do actually help with maritime surveillance. So our efforts with our Orions, with the OPBs, that is co-ordinated with that programme. And this is the whole point of this meeting I've just come from. It's actually saying, 'Hey, what resources have we got that we're utilising, say, for maritime surveillance, and how can we make sure it's optimally co-ordinated?' And in the future we will have an involvement with that programme. We do actually have some involvement. Australia provided the boats originally. If you look at the Cook Islands, we provided a couple of military staff who are technical advisors and help run the programme. We've also got similar involvement, I believe, with the Samoan boat. So none of these things are independent and they don't operate in a vacuum.