Australia is spending 17 times more on defence than New Zealand, with a leading Defence think tank warning that New Zealand is at risk "of becoming a Western ally with Chinese characteristics".
In a report released by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, senior analyst Dr Mark Thomson has called on the government to increase its engagement with New Zealand's defence forces.
"In the coming years, both countries will have to tread a fine line between Mr Trump’s unpredictability and Mr Xi’s threats of economic punishment. The antipodean pair could either draw closer together or be pulled apart, and each will continue to calibrate its strategic distance from the US," the report warns.
The ASPI analyst said despite the expanded framework for cross-Tasman defence co-operation established after a joint review in 2011, more effort is needed to enhance the two countries relationships.
"A conscious effort is needed to stop the relationship from becoming stale and, more critically, to bolster it against buffeting from a region in strategic transition," the report said.
Dr Thomson noted the relationship between Australia and the US, in which Australia relies on the US to "shoulder the burden in the broader region", mirrors that of the Australia-New Zealand (A-NZ) relationship, with Australia spending significantly more on defence.
"New Zealanders each contribute NZ$426 to their defence; Australians spend $1,438. New Zealand doesn’t match Australia’s effort because it knows that Australia will shoulder the burden in the local region in any case," the report said.
The report goes on to suggest that, despite the asymmetry of the burden sharing, nurturing the A-NZ relationships is not only a wise move in a geopolitcal sense, it is also a sensible financially.
"Australia would have to increase its defence spending by more than $1 billion a year to generate the additional military capabilities that New Zealand can contribute for operations. From Australia’s perspective, the business case for the alliance isn’t diminished one iota by the asymmetry of gains or the disparity in burden sharing. All that matters is that the A–NZ alliance delivers a net gain to Canberra," Dr Thomson said.
The senior analyst said maintaining the alliance could best be achieved through more combined exercises involving the US and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises in south-east Asia and the south Pacific.
Maritime surveillance efforts could also be stepped up, with Thomson encouraging Australia and New Zealand to look at the US and Canada and form their own version of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), albeit with a surveillance focus rather than air defence.
"The resulting Anzac Maritime Surveillance Command would be a ‘static’ capability that’s largely immune to the vagaries of politically contentious deployments," Dr Thomson said.
"The critical question is what New Zealand will be able bring to the table. A good start would be to follow Australia and replace its P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft with the P-8 Poseidon. Better still, it could buy one or more Triton long-range surveillance drones to augment the system that Australia is acquiring."