Building Capacity

Building Capacity

The Royal New Zealand Navy promotes participation in multilateral exercises and security forums to bolster regional security


Many mariners would argue that New Zealand is the last civilized stop at the bottom of the world before Antarctica. Located at the lower southwest corner of the Pacific Ocean, New Zealand is home to a culturally diverse and proud population of 4.7 million people spread throughout the country’s 268,107 square kilometers.

New Zealand also claims an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 4 million square kilometers, the fourth-largest in the world, and it possesses an abundance of fish and natural undersea resources. Liberal policies of successive governments during the past three decades have supported the nation’s growth and economic prosperity. When combined with the development and maturing of an independent foreign policy over the same period, New Zealand’s status as a voice of reason in global affairs has grown.

The HMNZS Wellington’s boarding team works with New Zealand’s South Pacific partners. [Royal NEW ZEALAND NAVY]

Although New Zealand is relatively isolated geographically, it works with many trading partners to address growing security challenges. The Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) is regularly deployed throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region to support like-minded nations in maintaining regional and global security.

A Challenging Area of Responsibility

Rear Adm. John Martin, chief of the RNZN, spoke at the November 2016 Maritime Security Forum in Auckland, New Zealand, as part of the Navy’s 75th anniversary celebrations. He described New Zealand “not [as] a small island nation with a small navy, but a large oceanic nation with significant maritime responsibilities.” The RNZN’s operating area stretches from the equator to as close to the South Pole as a ship can go before hitting the continent. The RNZN regularly contributes ships, aircraft and personnel to coalitions and multinational maritime forces in the Arabian Gulf; independently deploys platforms and capabilities such as command teams and explosive ordnance disposal teams; offers specialized naval cooperation and guidance for shipping personnel to participate in exercises and operations around the world; and, within its EEZ, conducts a wide range of tasks that span the spectrum of operations expected of any modern navy. This is no small feat for a navy that has only 11 ships and a little more than 2,000 officers, Sailors and civilian staff based 1,000 nautical miles from its nearest neighbor and ally, Australia.

As a small navy with a large oceanic area of responsibility, the RNZN plays an integral part in the New Zealand Defence Force’s (NZDF’s) contribution to the nation’s elements of national power (diplomacy, informational, military and economic). A credible military is required to defend the country’s sovereign claims and assure security partners that New Zealand can be relied on in a time of crisis. This primacy allows the government to be more resilient when it responds to national emergencies and security risks at home, such as the 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Kaikoura, New Zealand, on November 14, 2016.


Given the small size of the Navy, a realist could argue that New Zealand is becoming increasingly vulnerable in its ability to defend itself at the bottom of the world and to protect its national security interests around the world. Global trends in changing demography, population growth and migration, increasing ideologies, resource scarcity and climate change are starting to be felt in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. It is only a matter of time before these trends directly affect New Zealand’s ability to secure its EEZ. As a maritime nation almost entirely dependent on maritime trade, having the NZDF and the RNZN engaged in maritime security and the defense of the wider international security system with allies and partners is critical to maintaining national security.

Geopolitically, the key to New Zealand’s success has been its ability to manage its economic and security relationships, which has been achieved by fostering strong international relationships characterized by mutual transparency and trust. Beyond its close defense security relationship with Australia, New Zealand has made it policy to participate in multilateral institutions that reinforce international norms and promote dialogue between states. The nation practices defense diplomacy, using its resources and capabilities in times of peace and conflict to support the government’s foreign policy priorities and contribute to international peace and security.

International Defense Engagement Strategy

For a small nation with a relatively small defense force, a combined Ministry of Defence and international defense engagement strategy (IDES) helps New Zealand government officials target international defense engagement in shaping the strategic environment. The IDES also assists defense officials in meeting New Zealand’s interests, while enhancing the nation’s reputation as a responsible international partner and contributing to regional and global peace, security and stability. All of these activities promote New Zealand’s prosperity. Many of the strategic security relationships are characterized by a mix of engagement activities, which include annual dialogues among senior defense officials, exchanges of defense personnel, joint military exercises, high-level visits, and information sharing in numerous regional and global security forums.

In the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, the NZDF participates in over 100 joint, combined, and single-service exercises or activities per year. Examples include the long-standing Singaporean or Malaysian-led Bersama series of exercises in Southeast Asia (as part of the Five Powers Defence Arrangement for the defense of the Malaysian Peninsula among Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom); the U.S.-led multilateral maritime Rim of the Pacific Exercise held every two years in the Pacific; and the NZDF-led Tropic series of humanitarian aid and disaster relief exercises that help build partnerships in the Southwest Pacific, which involves regional partners from the Pacific islands and, increasingly, the wider Indo-Asia-Pacific. Participation and engagement in regional security forums such as the Asian Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+) helps to develop and enhance cooperative maritime security capabilities and form relationships between nations.

Participation in such forums demonstrates that New Zealand can effectively contribute to the maintenance and security of the global sea lines of communication and work in the international environment with like-minded nations in a time of crisis.

For New Zealand’s Navy, participating in multilateral exercises demonstrates that it can effectively secure the region surrounding New Zealand and contribute to the defense of the wider Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

Finally, successful deployments in coalition operations validate the investment in multilateral exercises and security forums. The mutual trust and understanding gained in such engagements also enables nations to help each other during national disasters. The New Zealand government’s response to the earthquake in Kaikoura would not have been as easily achieved were it not able to call on its ADMM+ partners and friends who were exercising in New Zealand’s waters or visiting for the Navy’s 75th Anniversary International Fleet Review. The international response was almost instantaneous. All available aviation-capable platforms deployed toward the epicenter as a combined task group in preparation of receiving a diplomatic request to provide assistance. This highlights the value that New Zealand puts into its participation in multilateral engagements and regional security forums.