New Zealand considers joining US-led Red Sea naval coalition
The government is weighing up a request to send military assets to join Operation Prosperity Guardian as Houthi forces target shipping routes over genocide in Gaza.
New Zealand is considering sending its military to join a US-led naval coalition to defend Red Sea shipping from attacks by Houthi forces.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin earlier this week announced a establishment of a naval alliance in the region following attacks from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen on merchant ships in response to Israel’s siege and bombardment of Gaza.
One international relations expert told In Context if the government did decide to send support he expected it to be insignificant, but that any contribution posed risk of making matters worse.
Attacks on ships using one of the busiest maritime routes in the world have stepped up in recent weeks in and around the 18-mile-wide Bab el-Mandeb strait.
Drone and rocket launches have caused chaos, with international shipping giants rerouting vessels away from the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
Danish company Møller–Maersk on Wednesday announced it was sending its ships around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope, adding an extra 10 days or longer to the journey. Others are doing the same or pausing operations.
In response to the ongoing disruption, Austin contacted 20 defence ministers at the beginning of the week seeking support for the special naval taskforce to protect the shipping routes, called Operation Prosperity Guardian. Associated Press has reported 20 nations have signed up to the naval alliance, with at least eight nations wanting to keep their involvement secret.
In a short statement to In Context, a New Zealand Defence Force spokesperson confirmed a request had been made for assistance and that a decision on whether to send a deployment of NZDF personnel or naval assets to support the US-led operation was being considered.
“The New Zealand Defence Force is aware of Operation Prosperity Guardian. We have received a request from the US for a contribution to this operation and it is under consideration. Further details are not available at this time,” it said.
Houthi forces had initially attempted to fire long-range missile attacks into Israel as a ground offensive began in Gaza, but after being repeatedly intercepted by Saudi Arabian and US military they changed tact and began targeting the shipping route, including cargos destined for Israel.
Last month, Houthi fighters took British-owned cargo ship Galaxy Leader to the port of Hodeidh after launching a helicopter raid on the vessel. Since then, several tankers have been attacked and damaged, including a Norwegian-owned tanker Swan Atlantic, which was hit by a drone and an anti-ship ballistic missile on Tuesday.
If New Zealand does agree to support the naval operation it will join UK, Canada, Holland, Norway, France, Italy, the Seychelles, Greece, Spain and Bahrain in the region, as well as signal a further alignment to US military and foreign policy objectives.
Australia said it would send military personnel to the Red Sea but no warship.
US, French and British warships have shot down dozens of drones in the Red Sea area during the past week. UK and US naval assets have been stationed in the region since Israel launched its assault on Gaza seven weeks ago.
The presence of UK warships and US carrier strike groups, including the USS Gerald R Ford, which arrived off the coast of Israel in mid-October, were meant to deter Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Yemeni rebel forces from intervening in Israel’s Gaza operation as tensions in the region soared.
University of Otago Professor of International Relations Robert Patman told In Context the government needed to be careful when deciding on whether to join the naval alliance and what form this support should take.
He said having a nominal presence among the alliance without committing naval assets like ships would placate the US, while minimising risks of contributing to a potential regional conflagration and confrontation with Iran, which supports the Houthi fighters.
But he agreed that even sending several NZDF personnel to join the operation would pose risks, while doing nothing to address the core reasons for the Houthi attacks.
“Unfortunately, there is that risk, and that is something New Zealand will have to weigh up very carefully,” he said.
“I think that may be a reason why the Australians only sent 11 naval personnel. Because if you send capabilities, then you'd be more vulnerable. I think nevertheless, if you send personnel, you're vulnerable as well, but it does lower the risk a bit.
“The other thing to keep in mind here though is that the Americans, while they are supporting Israel's bombardment on Gaza are actually contributing to a climate in which the Houthis are acting.
“If you want to defang or to cut the leverage of the Houthis, they need to end the issue that the Houthis are feeding off. So, there is a bit of a confusion here of cause and effect.
“The Americans are acting as if the Houthis have been seizing upon a situation which has nothing to do with them. You could argue that, but the fact of the matter is most people have known that if there is disproportionate reaction to the appalling Hamas terror atrocity against Israel - and unfortunately, there has been disproportionate reaction - that in itself would have the seeds of spreading conflict in the region.”
Patman said any decision to send NZDF and naval assets to the Red Sea would involve significant discussions between New Zealand’s coalition parties. He added the US request presented a classic case of deciding how best to balance conflicting interests.
“The New Zealand government does want the fighting to stop in Gaza as soon as possible and we would like to see the Americans stop vetoing the UN Security Council resolutions. On the other hand, we do have an interest, being a small trading nation, in making sure the Red Sea is still relatively safe for commercial activities. That is, for ships to go through, which involve New Zealand's trading interests.”
In Context asked New Zealand’s Government Communications and Security Bureau (GCSB) whether the Waihopai Station secure communication facility was being used to collect information for use by our Five Eyes partner the United States' ongoing naval engagement in the Middle East. No reply had been received by the time of publication.
Over 20,000 Gazans, mostly women and children, have been killed since Israel put the coastal strip under siege and began bombing it in response to Hamas’ surprise attack on military installations and settlements on October 7.
More than half a million people in Gaza are starving, according the United Nations.
UN special rapporteurs have released several statements over the past two months pointing to genocidal intent voiced by Israeli leaders and warning Palestinian civilians were being targeted by the military on an industrial scale in acts of displacement and collective punishment.
Nearly 2 million Gazans have been displaced and corralled into the strip’s southern border with Egypt, as the bombardment continues.
On December 7 New Zealand’s Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters forwarded a motion in Parliament calling on parties to the conflict to “take urgent steps towards establishing a ceasefire”.