Foreign Minister Winston Peters is in Australia for the regular six-monthly consultations with his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop – and to deliver a speech to the National Press Club.
Some see this as a critical moment in the Trans-Tasman relationship in the light of the recent spat over Australia’s action in deporting increasing numbers of Kiwis. More important, there is growing concern in both Canberra and Wellington about the role China is playing in the Pacific.
If anyone from the NZ coalition government can get some traction in Canberra, it is probably Winston Peters. He may, however, find the current climate there very edgy after PM Malcolm Turnbull survived a leadership ballot by a close 48 votes to 35.
Peters frequently sees Bishop – who remains as deputy Liberal leader – at regional forums but these one-on-one meetings present a formal opportunity to discuss the Tasman relationship in depth along with regional issues.
None of this can be taken for granted, he says. During the meeting they will focus on how to keep working to strengthen and build on the bilateral relationship.
Peters and Bishop are warm friends (when Bishop was last in Auckland, Peters invited her to dinner at his home) as well as being hard-nosed political veterans.
There will be the ritual exchange of well-worn jokes: we might expect the Nauru “refugees” (most are economic rather than of the classical definition) to be raised, although PM Jacinda Ardern has been rebuffed twice on that issue.
Peters is expected to raise the situation of New Zealanders caught up in Australian detention. The resignation of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton after he failed to unhorse Turnbull won’t result in policy change.
There’s a key phrase in Peters’ official announcement of his visit:
“In turbulent times such as these, our close friends like Australia are more important than ever”.
This reflects a rapidly changing political and economic environment in the Pacific, in conjunction with the drive by China to exert its muscle in the region. .
Officials in both governments are watching ever-more closely Chinese intentions because they see clear patterns emerging that Beijing wants to supplant Australia and NZ in the region rather than being a solid responsible partner.
China took over a Sri Lanka port recently after the government there failed to meet loan repayments. Now Tonga confronts similar problems.
Australia is starting to deploy its P-8 Poseidon maritime patrollers into disputed South China Sea waters – and increasingly into the Pacific. Recently a Chinese “fishing vessel” just happened to dock in Fiji when visiting warships from Australia were in port.
The RNZAF is expected to undertake training with the RAAF as its own Poseidons come closer.