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Royal New Zealand Navy hosts South West Pacific Regional Initiative

Line of Defence Magazine, Spring 2017

Participants of the inaugural meeting of the Heads of South West Pacific Maritime Forces, held in Auckland.Participants of the inaugural meeting of the Heads of South West Pacific Maritime Forces, held in Auckland.


Rapid evolution of maritime security threats and challenges demanding coordinated regional responses a driver for continued Heads of Maritime Forces meetings, writes Peter GreenerSenior Fellow at Victoria University Wellington’s Centre for Strategic Studies.


In April this year Defence chiefs from around the South Pacific, in identifying areas for increased cooperation, agreed to the holding of a meeting of Heads of Maritime Forces in Auckland later in the year aimed at enhancing regional maritime security. The inaugural meeting of the Heads of South West Pacific Maritime Forces took place on Auckland’s North Shore on 4 and 5 September.

Hosted by Rear Admiral John Martin of the Royal New Zealand Navy, along with Assistant Commissioner Mike Rusbatch from the New Zealand Police, the meeting brought together the heads of navies and law enforcement maritime agencies from across the region.

Represented at the meeting were maritime forces from the Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, France, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Australia and New Zealand. Attendance on day one was limited to the principals and their support staff, whilst day two saw the group joined by a wider audience of officials, academics and defence and police personnel.

The 2016 Defence White Paper noted that the “Government’s highest priority for the Defence Force is its ability to operate in New Zealand and its Exclusive Economic Zone, followed by the South Pacific and the Southern Ocean.” With regards to the South Pacific the White Paper observed that as global demand for fish stocks increases so too will the pressure on fisheries, with greater challenges anticipated in the areas of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.

It noted the economic impact on the region, where already the annual losses through such activities have been estimated at $400 million. The White Paper also highlighted transnational crime as a growing issue. Perhaps not surprisingly then, these topics were at the core of the concerns discussed by the principals over the two days of their meeting.

Whilst New Zealand itself has an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of more than four million square kilometers – one of the largest in the world – it also has responsibility in the South Pacific for the realm EEZs of Tokelau, Niue and the Cook Islands, together a further area of more than two and a half million square kilometers.


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The size of the challenge of policing the region is underscored when the eight million square kilometers of the other island nations’ EEZs are added.

In order for the New Zealand Defence Force to be able to operate effectively in the South Pacific, it is crucial that it is able to work together with other forces across the region. This meeting had a clear maritime focus and was aimed at increasing cooperation, trust and confidence between the heads of the member navies and maritime law enforcement agencies.

Rather than being a conference, this was a meeting where the principals of the maritime forces of the region had the opportunity not only to listen to experts who provided a New Zealand perspective of the region, but also to discuss at some length the challenges that impacted each of them in their own environment.

The first day therefore was focused on the principals, allowing an opportunity to discuss common concerns with regards to capability development, including personnel and training, and operational demands.

The second day had a broader regional focus and common themes were identified. In addition to fisheries resource protection and transnational organised crime and illegal migration, these included search and rescue; the security of EEZs; maritime terrorism; climate change, and humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

Strengthening partnerships, implementing co-coordinated responses and building capacity were seen as key elements in responding to the challenges facing the region.

Until this meeting there had not been a forum providing the principals a place to further relationships and engage with regional issues – of particular importance given the rapid evolution of maritime security threats and challenges that demand coordinated regional responses.

Captain Humphrey Tawake, Chief of the Republic of Fiji Navy said it presented a significant opportunity to discuss common security issues around one table.

Given the success of this inaugural gathering it was resolved that the Heads of South West Pacific Maritime Forces meeting will continue on an annual basis, hosted in turn by its members.


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