Pacific Scoop

On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Gerry Brownlee

Press Release – The Nation

Defence Minister reserves right to retaliate against any cyber attacks, but says New Zealand will not launch a pre-emptive cyber strike.On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Gerry Brownlee

Youtube clips from the show are available here.


Defence Minister reserves right to retaliate against any cyber attacks, but says New Zealand will not launch a pre-emptive cyber strike.

“Are we going to sit passively and not do anything about the attacker? I don’t think so. So all we’re saying is let’s ensure that over the next period of time we have the capacity to defend ourselves.”

Backs America’s and Britain’s position on the South China Sea, saying China should accept the upcoming Hague ruling as binding.

Says people smugglers making it to New Zealand is “a long shot” given “we’re a long way from anywhere”, but “you can’t rule it out”. “If they got better ships, more capable of handling the Tasman, then of course we’re a ripe target.”

Says a new plane and ship will help us protect Antarctica, but denies China and Russia are the focus of concern, revealing the last vessel being tracked for illegal fishing there was Spanish.

Brownlee not satisfied with a lack of personnel being identified as a risk in seven out of 13 major Defence projects, but says “every effort” is being made to fix that.

Says he’s not sure “in a blanket sort of way we’re having more weather events than we have in the past” and insists “our defence policy is not determined by any potential for the adverse effects of climate change” despite White Paper forecasting an “increase in frequency and intensity of natural disasters in the region”.

Defence will use a new way of procuring equipment because “New Zealand has had quite a record of buying stuff that doesn’t quite fit.”

Whenuapai and Devonport military bases won’t be sold “on my watch”.

Lisa Owen: Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee joins me now from our Christchurch studio. Good morning, Minister. This report anticipates that we will need to deploy into the Pacific in the next 10 years for something other than a humanitarian or a disaster relief situation. What do you anticipate that could be for?

Gerry Brownlee: I don’t think we anticipate any particular event, but what the white paper is saying we should be prepared for that.

The thing is, though, I mean, our prime minister has been in Fiji just this week. That’s a country that’s been known for coups. We’ve got unrest in Vanuatu and PNG. Is that kind of what you’re talking about – a coup or a similar situation?

Well, I don’t want to say anything that it looks like New Zealand is anticipating those sorts of things happening in those countries. What we are anticipating is the possibility across a number of Pacific countries where there’s instability. But you’ve also got outside actors. That is the biggest worry for us. So, you know, the world’s, sort of, interstate conflict is at a low point now, but in-state and non-authoritarian actions by terrorists, etc, is quite a different matter, and there’s a lot of potential for that, we think, particularly in the Pacific around hotspots. And it’s not that we’re… I don’t’ want to send out any scary warnings or anything else. It’s simply us saying, ‘Let’s be prepared for this.’

Well, one of the things that the report does mention is people smuggling – a people-smuggling incident. Could it be that? Because the paper says that there are indications people smugglers are targeting New Zealand.

Yeah, we’re a long way from anywhere, and it would be a bit of a long shot on some of the vessels that we’ve seen people attempting to get into Australia in, but you can’t rule it out. You know, the organised movement of people these days is more common. If you look at what’s happened in Europe in recent times, you can see people just got on the march. So to imagine that people could not get to New Zealand if they chose, I think, would be a bit of a dreamer’s effort. So we have to be considering that as well.

But you do say it’s a long shot. So is it a bit alarmist, then, to include that into the report?

No, no. No, it’s a long shot in the type of vessels. If they got better ships, more capable of handling the Tasman, then of course we’re a ripe target.

Okay. Well, responding to Cyclone Winston has been our biggest deployment since World War II. Natural disasters are increasing in their frequency and intensity. But at the same time, John Key has said that New Zealand shouldn’t be a leader in dealing with climate change. But I’m wondering, given the cost we’re facing, should we be leading in climate change?

Well, you’re switching to a responsibility that lies in the different ministry, but I would just take you up a little bit on that. To sort of say in a blanket sort of way we’re having more weather events than we have in the past, I’m not sure about that. If you look at that recent rising of the Seine, for example, weather event. But the record of 1910 still wasn’t surpassed. So, you know, and then it got up to somewhere where it was in ’82.

This is what the white paper is saying – that these incidents are becoming more frequent and of greater intensity – and obviously Defence pays the price for that in mopping up.

Can do, and we were very happy to go and help people in Fiji. That’s part of our general responsibility as a larger country in the Pacific. And the guys who went there did a fantastic job. But increasingly, governments like the Fijian government, Samoan government and others do have a lot of their own capacity, and they were very pleased for the help but they didn’t need us long term. So having that capacity to surge, I suppose, in those circumstances is also useful. And we have that at the moment. We just want to maintain it.

So just to be clear, are you saying that climate change isn’t a concern in the Pacific? Because you seem to be downplaying it.

No, I’m not. I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is our defence policy is not determined by any potential for the adverse effects of climate change.

All right. Well, there is some interesting stuff in this report about Antarctica as well. The report talks about the motivations of some countries in that area being less clear. So who are we talking about exactly, and what are they up to?

It could be anybody. I think one of the things that you take into consideration, and the white paper talks about this, is the expected growth in the world’s population – so another billion more people in the world in the next 12 or so years. That puts a huge demand on the existing resources or capacity to extract existing resources and also food supply. Now, we have the Ross Dependency. That is our responsibility, and we have to be in a position to be able to defend that responsibility.

But you’re talking about China and Russia, aren’t you? I mean, China’s up to its fifth base down there, and Russia’s got three satellite stations looking to build a base. That’s who you’re talking about, isn’t it?

Well, the last apprehension, or should I say tracking, of illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean by a New Zealand ship was actually another country who had that responsibility. I don’t think to point to large countries and say they’re the problem…

Which country are you referring to?

Well, I want to be certain about this, but I’m pretty certain they were Spanish.

Okay. But in terms of Antarctica, China and Russia are ones that have been singled out, and certainly Australia has singled out China as a concern, so why not name some names? Who else are we worried about?

Well, look, I don’t think it helps to go pointing fingers at people. I think this paper is about New Zealand’s capacity to, as well as we can, defend ourselves and the territories that we’re responsible for.

So what can we do about it, then? In Antarctica.

We can make sure… Well, at the moment, we don’t have a plane that can travel to Antarctica and back if it gets there and finds that there’s adverse conditions and it can’t land. We don’t have a ship that can go further south than just below Campbell Island. So we’ve got to, obviously, try and get hold of that sort of equipment. We have planes that do fly down there under some compromised circumstances. So we can fly the 757s down there without people on board, just the crew. Then we can fly people back, because there’s seven landing opportunities once you get into New Zealand. And then we have supply ships that are getting to an aged point where it’s unadvisable that they go below that particular parallel.

All right. Well, earlier this week you spoke about the South China Sea and China’s efforts to build and claim islands there. What they’re doing is unhelpful and it’s heightening tensions, isn’t it?

Well, I answered questions that were asked about it. I certainly didn’t raise it as an issue. I think the extraordinary thing…

But what they’re doing is unhelpful and it is heightening tensions, isn’t it?

I was just going on to answer your assertion there. The point is, I think, that this is quite new for the world. Those atolls that have been built up into islands and now have some 3000 acres of flat surface on them, including runways and other buildings, are artificially created, so they’ve been brought up from structures that were below the high-water mark to significant land structures. The world’s never quite seen that before, so all the issues that go around United Nations convention, the Sea UNCLOS, are going to be tested through all of this. We’ve said rule of the law should prevail. We don’t take a position on who has the particular territorial claim to any of those atolls or islands.

All right, well, that wasn’t actually my assertion. Those were the words of Murray McCully. That was a quote from Murray McCully in March. Is our position shifting on this? Are we softening up? Because Australia is very direct about the fact that China is a point of friction around the South China Seas.

Yeah, I think people want to know what the end game is here. Our position has not changed. We are not softening any position. Our position always has been we want freedom of navigation, we want freedom of overflight, we want the open lines of communication, and we expect that there will be adherence to international law.

So The Hague ruling that’s anticipated on this, should it be binding, in your view?

Well, anything that is going to be binding has to be accepted by the countries who are involved, and I think the difficult situation here is China has said they won’t accept that ruling if it’s adverse.

Should China accept it?

That’s for the Chinese government. We believe they should. But having said that, there are bilateral discussions at the moment between the six countries who are most affected. There is, I understand, a settlement with Brunei, and the Philippines president has made some very interesting comments. Remember, the Philippines brought the case to the International Court of Arbitration about how they might deal with the matter in the future. I think the really important thing is to get in our heads about this is this is quite new. Where you have disputes over territorial rights to islands that are natural geological structures, that’s one thing. But when you have an engineered effort to create a new island and then claim territorial rights over that island, albeit you’re claiming a massive territorial right in the whole of the South China Sea anyway, it’s very, very challenging.

All right. I want to move on to cyberattacks. You’ve raised concerns about those – attacks on New Zealand military. So who would be doing that? Who would be carrying out cyberattacks on New Zealand military?

Well, wherever we have our military deployed in a conflict situation, they are, these days, as your network, for example, heavily depended on the electronic world, and the ability to either destroy communications or misdirect vessels, vehicles, whatever, aeroplanes, is something that you have to protect against.

You’ve also said it should not be one or the other – attack or defend – in terms of our cyber operations. We need to know what other people are up to. So are we going to be, or are we, cyberattacking others, and who are the targets that we’re looking at?

I’m not aware that we’re cyberattacking anybody, but if we were in a conflict situation and we were facing cyberattack across a range of things – it may even be in civil society – we would want to do something about defending ourselves, and I think that’s a perfectly reasonable situation.

But attacking others or hacking others is on the agenda, if necessary?

I think you’re leaping to too far ahead of us there. The point I’m making is cyberattack these days is an increasing threat. That’s what the white paper is saying. You think about how much of New Zealand economy, for example, is dependent upon all of that cyber activity. If it came under attack, of course we want to defend ourselves. And are we going to sit passively and not do anything about the attacker? I don’t think so. So all we’re saying is let’s ensure that over the next period of time we have the capacity to defend ourselves.

So we would never pre-emptively attack somebody else, then?

No, I think these days cyber is as much a weapon potentially as any bomb or any other weapon of war, so we don’t intend going out starting wars with anybody.

All right. So, at the start of the year… Well, defence is going to get $20 billion over the next 15 years. Is that all going to be new money?

Some of it is depreciation, and a big chunk of it will be new money.

How much of it will be new money?

Well, the $20 billion is an attempt to try and give good direction to both the Defence Force and the Ministry of Defence about acquiring the kit, if you like, that’s necessary to have the capabilities that we’ve signed off on. Remember, it is a very long period of time, so progressively over that time, those purchases, those procurements, will be decided upon and made. So all we’re saying is it’s a different way of procuring. New Zealand has had quite a record of buying stuff that doesn’t quite fit.

In terms of those procurements, Minister, the Auditor General has reviewed the work that our military is doing on major projects, and she’s identified in seven out of 13 projects, there is a lack of experienced personnel, and that is a risk or an issue for these projects. And the problem is getting worse, she says. Are you satisfied with that?

No, and that’s why the secretary of defence has made very big efforts in the last 18 months to boost up the procurement section of the ministry. That’s why we’ve had quite significant personnel rearrangement inside the Defence Force. There’s every effort to try and improve on that. The point I’m making is if you look…

Just, Minister, we’re running out of time, but quickly before we go, I want to know, Devenport and Whenuapai bases, they’re on valuable land. Is there any chance that they could be up for sale?

Not on my watch.

All right. Thank you very much for joining me this morning. Much appreciated.

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