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New Zealand to Boost Defense Capabilities Amid Pacific Tensions

New Zealand Defense Minister Andrew Little speaks as he releases a defense policy paper in Wellington, New Zealand, Aug. 4, 2023.
New Zealand Defense Minister Andrew Little speaks as he releases a defense policy paper in Wellington, New Zealand, Aug. 4, 2023.

New Zealand said Friday it plans to boost its defense capabilities as tensions rise in the Pacific, due in part to a military buildup by China.

Defense Minister Andrew Little said current defense spending amounted to about 1% of the nation's economy, a proportion he expected would need to increase, although not as high as 2%.

He said replacing aging navy frigates and patrol vessels is among the most pressing needs under consideration. He said the country is also facing an increase in domestic threats such as misinformation, cyberattacks and terrorism.

The new defense policy paper released by Little contained no specifics about increases in spending, equipment or troops, with those details expected to be finalized in a later plan.

Rather the paper pointed to a rethinking about the role of the nation's military, which has often been used primarily to act as peacekeepers or provide aid when Pacific countries are hit by natural disasters.

Now, the paper said, New Zealand is facing more challenging times than it has in decades and the military needs to improve combat readiness. The military has been struggling with outdated equipment and difficulties recruiting and retaining staff.

Little said New Zealand had thought until recently that it was protected by its remoteness.

"The changes in the domestic and international security environment mean our response and preparedness must change, too," he said.

The paper took direct aim at China for heightened tensions, saying it is using its national power in a way that challenges existing international rules and norms.

"Beijing continues to invest heavily in growing and modernizing its military, and is increasingly able to project military and paramilitary force beyond its immediate region," the paper said.

Little stressed that he doesn't think "we are close to war in the Pacific."

"I think there is some rising tension in the Pacific. I think it puts the onus on all countries with a stake in the Pacific, and involved in the Pacific, to be engaged," he said.

U.S. Ambassador Tom Udall told The Associated Press that New Zealand has an important role in Pacific security.

"I think the first thing that this recognizes is that we are seeing a big security change in the region," Udall said of the defense paper. "And I don't think there is any doubt that New Zealand is on top of that, and moving forward to take very aggressive action to put in place policies and plans to address it."