Dr Andrew Butcher is Director of Policy and Research at the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

As Justin Jones has noted, the long-awaited (over a decade since the last) and somewhat delayed New Zealand Defence White Paper 2010 was released this morning. Apparently we will not have to wait as long for the next review, which is signaled to be in 2015 and then every five years.

Australia is ever-present. It is New Zealand's strongest alliance partner in every respect ('we have no better friend and no closer ally'). The case of a direct threat to Australia is nominated as one of five instances where New Zealand would consider using military force.

But Indonesia is absent. Its absence from this White Paper mirrors its absence from the public consciousness. In the Asia NZ Foundation's annual poll in 2009, Indonesia was ranked tenth in a question that asked, 'when you think of Asia, what countries come to mind?'.

China is mentioned but with a warning bell: 'there will be a natural tendency for it to define and pursue its interests in a more forthright way on the back of growing wealth and power.' Japan is mentioned only three times: twice negatively (its declining economy and its unsuccessful proposal for regional architecture) and once in a list of major powers (alongside Korea, China and the US).

Two constraints provide the background to this White Paper. The first is financial and is the reason for its delayed release. The findings of a value-for-money exercise dominate the last half of the White Paper, with cuts in property (via consolidating bases), defence diplomacy, training, some operational services (via centralisation), uniformed staff (with some roles to be taken up by civilians), and even bands and museums.

There will be some related organisational changes. The role of Chief Operating Officer will be created. Along with the new Chief of Defence Force (the incumbent is leaving to become the Chief Spook), the COO will be responsible for ensuring the savings in the White Paper get delivered. An independent Defence Advisory Board will also be appointed by and report to the Minister. These cost-cutting and organisational changes reflect changes in the public service generally, and a desire from this Government to receive advice external to its own officials. 

The second 'constraint' is strategic, and the outlook is largely negative. Specific challenges include: pressures on the rules-based international order; increased pressure on maritime resources and increased risk of illegal migration; South Pacific fragility; and the diminution of America's technological and military edge (though it's likely to remain the pre-eminent military power). Responding to these challenges, the Paper supports multilateral engagement and the UN as the 'principal source of legitimacy for the use of force in international affairs'.

This White Paper isn't as muscular as Australia's nor has it set its target on a particular country. But the strategic challenges for both countries remain the same. The region is changing and it may not change for the better.

Photo coutesy of the NZDF.