Retreating isn’t an option - Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda Ardern is working hard to build the case for open trade in her talks with China and the United States.

The Prime Minister got precious facetime with the world’s two superpowers while in Singapore for the East Asia Summit (EAS) and related regional summits.

On Wednesday (local time) Ardern met with both China Premier Li Keqiang during a formal bilateral, and with US Vice President Mike Pence during dinner.

In what Foreign Minister Winston Peters described as a “rather special” request, US Vice President Mike Pence asked to be seated next to Ardern during the EAS gala dinner.

Specific requests like these are rare, with the host usually dictating seating arrangements.

Ardern was actually seated next to Pence’s wife Karen but spoke to the Vice President while seated at dinner, and later while mingling.

She again used this as a chance to talk about the importance New Zealand places on multilateral trade agreements.

The talks come amid rising US protectionism, and a trade war between the US and China.

On Wednesday, retail spending figures for China showed a further slowdown in the country’s economy, amid the economic slogging.

But Ardern shrugged off yet another indicator of China’s cooling when speaking to New Zealand media in Singapore.

In the past, these types of global issues had affected business sentiment and growth projections, but right now experts were still predicting solid growth for New Zealand, she said.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters, who touched down in Singapore Wednesday evening (local time), said the trade war may not have a negative effect on New Zealand.

“The reality is, we’re a small country, and collateral fallout may not necessarily be our destiny, we may be advantaged by that; we don’t know.”

Retreating not an option

While Ardern said she did not specifically raise the trade war with either leader, she did talk about the importance of open trade and multilateral agreements from New Zealand’s perspective.

In her comments to New Zealand media in Singapore on the US-China situation, Ardern chose to focus on the Kiwi perspective.

But in an interview with Bloomberg in Singapore she said the trade war could affect global growth and business confidence.

“From our perspective, we want to make sure that if the world sneezes, New Zealand doesn’t catch a cold,” she told Bloomberg.

“We see no benefit from tit-for-tat trade wars, so we’ll keep pushing hard around really abiding by those trade rules and agreements and norms that we’ve signed up to.”

A day earlier, Ardern spoke to the BBC about the fallout from globalisation, with language that seemed crafted as a direct response to US President Donald Trump’s trade policy.

“Now it’s a global market and with that comes a little bit of fear - fear around job security, fear about whether your children will have the same opportunities that you had,” she said.

“Our response as political leaders can be twofold: we can either capitilise on that fear by blaming others and saying that the answer is to become more and more insular; to become protectionist; to build up those walls around us so that we can retreat back to yesteryear.

“The alternative is to give a message of hope.”

When asked by NZ media whether Trump’s protectionist policies had taken the world back to yesteryear, she said: “There's no question we've taken different positions - that doesn't mean there's no room for us to highlight New Zealand's position," she said.

"We'll continue to be an advocate under those conditions as well."

Ardern said her comments in the BBC interview were an effort to highlight “retreating isn’t an option for a country like New Zealand”.

“We are a geographically isolated nation that places huge reliance on the economic benefit derived from us engaging in trade and that we need some predictability around that … And that’s why we really do focus, and do support multi-lateral agreements; why we do support a rules-based system; why the WTO is so important to us.

“And I’ll share that openly with any world leader.”

Jacinda Ardern was seated with US Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen at the EAS gala dinner, upon special request from Pence. Photo: Ethan Smith/Pool

In line with his withdrawal from engagement in the Asia-Pacific regional architecture, Trump did not travel to Singapore for this year’s meetings.

But Pence’s presence was an opportunity to have discussions with a leader at a senior level of the US administration.

Ardern also used that opportunity to raise the issue of steel and aluminium tariffs, and said Pence acknowledged there needed to be an ongoing conversation about New Zealand’s lack of exemption.

They also spoke about politics and family life – an area where Ardern could find common ground with someone otherwise known for his conservative social and political views.

Ardern reminded media that politicians were humans too, and spoke about human things.

China-New Zealand relationship

Earlier in the day, Ardern met with China’s Li, where they spoke primarily about the FTA upgrade. Ardern said she was happy with the progress of the upgrade.

The pair did not speak about prickly geopolitical issues, like the US-China trade war, or “substantively discuss” the Belt and Road Initiative. There was no mention of New Zealand’s defence policy statement.

The statement raised eyebrows among foreign policy experts in July, with its seemingly newfound hawkishness on “an increasingly confident China”.

“Both domestically and as a basis for international engagement, China holds views on human rights and freedom of information that stand in contrast to those that prevail in New Zealand,” the document said.

China registered its displeasure with New Zealand following the statement’s release. There had also been some push and pull between the New Zealand Defence Force and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the statement’s strength.

In her opening remarks in the meeting with Li, Ardern said New Zealand’s relationship with China was “incredibly important”.

“We see that relationship as being incredibly important, not just by an economic perspective, but from a regional perspective.”

As was predictable of New Zealand, she also raised human rights concerns, with Li.

These concerns include the plight of the Uighur Muslims – a minority group who mainly live in Xinjiang, in the far West of China.

China’s treatment of the Uighurs has concerned human rights watchers. A United Nations committee was told in August that as many as 1 million Uighur and other Muslim Chinese had been detained to undergo “re-education”. In these centres, they sing hymns praising the Chinese Communist Party and write “self-criticism” essays, according to The New York Times.

Last month, Ardern said she might raise her concerns at a future meeting with Chinese officials, but made no firm commitment.

China has denied abuses, telling the UN Committee on Human Rights Abuses that no such centres existed.

Open for business

During her time in Asia, Ardern has also told the region: “New Zealand is open for business."

The country had infrastructure needs and gaps, which it would need help to fill, she said.

“We’re looking for high-quality foreign direct investment, that’s the kind of story and messaging we should be selling, regardless of whether or not there’s some turbulence around us.”

There needed to be a move away from foreign investment in residential housing, which damaged first home buyers, towards investing in the country’s “productive economy”.

She named transport and hotels as possible infrastructure investment projects.

And on Thursday, Ardern and Trade Minister David Parker announced an upgrade to the Closer Economic Partnership (CEP) with Singapore, "which smooths the way for New Zealand companies to explore further export opportunities in the city state".

On Wednesday, Ardern also met Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, and Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi in formal meetings. During the RCEP meeting she spoke to India’s Narendra Modi and at dinner chatted to Canada’s Justin Trudeau, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the leaders of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. On Thursday, Ardern met with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, as well as Japan’s Shinzo Abe and Malaysia’s Mahathir Bin Mohamad.

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