Pacific Reset – what Labour really thinks about it will be seen when US ships arrive

Left-wing  blogger Chris Trotter,  in  one of his  recent essays, questions whether PM Jacinda Ardern is really running the government or is merely its figurehead.

He  cited  several  examples of the PM  appearing to be unaware  of  key policy decisions  and  questioned  whether allowing her leading Cabinet Ministers to simply get on with the job is a central feature of her management style.

I hope  not.  It would suggest that Ardern has chosen the role of figurehead rather than leader. That her job is to supply the warm and sympathetic face of the Coalition Government while the heavy-hitters of her Cabinet – Winston Peters, Grant Robertson, David Parker, Phil Twyford, Meagan Woods and Shane Jones – carry out the day-to-day business of governing the country”.

The  issue  has   been  thrown  into  stark  relief    by  the  major  shift in  foreign  policy enunciated  by  Foreign Minister   Winston Peters,  whereby  under  the umbrella   of his Pacific Reset policy  he has  decisively tilted  NZ’s balancing act  between China and  the US.

In a  speech in  Washington,  in  saying  there are  “few relationships better than that between  NZ  and the US”,  Peters  spelled out  how  NZ  and the US  share a special connection

“ … for we both retain democratic traditions that have stood firm despite the upheavals of the twentieth century.  Our institutions are founded on democratic values, respect for human rights, freedom of speech and assembly, and free and fair trade. Promoting and maintaining the rule of law is the defining feature of both of our political systems”.

Peters made it plain his visit to  Washington is aimed at enlisting greater US  support in the region.

We unashamedly ask for the US to engage more and think it is  in  your vital interests to do so. And time is of the  essence”.

 Peters  said  NZ is

“ … acutely mindful of and archly concerned by the asymmetries at play in the region at a time when larger players are renewing their interest in the Pacific with an attendant level of strategic competition”.

“The speed and intensity of those interests at play are of great concern to us. Our eyes are wide open to this trajectory and we know that yours are too.”

All   of this must be read in the context  of  the US and China  engaging  in an increasingly tense trade war.

For long  enough it appeared  NZ   was  seeking to  ignore  the strained relations  between   the US  and China,  along  with China’s militaristic actions in  the South China  Sea,  and its  heavy aid  to  the Pacific.

Peters’  appeal to the  US   follows  his  own  move  to  take a  more  hard-nosed  line towards  China   (previously noted in Point of Order),  which has led to   a cooler  tone  out of  Beijing  towards  NZ.

Commentators  have observed a defence strategy paper in which NZ explicitly criticised China’s expansionism in the South China Sea for the first time; the announcement of a multi-billion dollar upgrade of air force surveillance capability to planes that could carry anti-submarine weaponry; a preliminary refusal to allow Chinese-owned Huawei to participate in the country’s 5-G mobile network rollout; and an on-again, off-again first prime ministerial visit to Beijing.

Ardern  told her  post-Cabinet  press conference Peters  did not show her the speech he delivered in Washington.

Speaking at her last post-Cabinet press conference for the year, Ardern   is  said   to have  “pushed back” at the suggestion she might have expected to see a speech relating to the government’s flagship “Pacific reset” foreign policy being given in the capital city of its most significant military partner, the US, which also bore directly on its relationship with the country’s largest trading partner, China.

 “It’s not only of the US that we believe there’ll be an interest in different regions (sic), including the Pacific.  Of course, France has an interest. The UK may take a different approach to foreign policy post-Brexit. These are conversations that I think are worth having with those with whom we’ve shared in the past similar values and directions when it comes to foreign policy,” she said.

Asked whether the speech indicated NZ was adopting a more pro-US stance and a less enthusiastic stance towards China, she gave an emphatic denial:

“No. Absolutely not.  This is not a bidding war.  This is all about making sure that where there are shared values and projects that we partner those who are able to deliver in the best interests of our region.

Contrast  that  with what  Peters said in Washington:

We are saying today to the United States that we welcome your involvement but ask you to join us in doing more because nations with common interests and common causes can achieve more together than any of us can manage on our own.

“Given our sense of urgency about Pacific risks we also point to the need for partners to support each other economically – through free trade and by understanding each other’s economic imperatives – because we can only achieve our collective ambitions by strengthening the economic engines that drive our shared desire to compete better, provide enhanced security, and, ultimately, to see the Pacific region and each other prosper.

It is NZ’s view that the Asia-Pacific region has reached an inflexion point, one that requires the urgent attention of both Wellington and Washington…

 “More now needs to be done, working in partnership with Pacific Island countries. We need to ensure that all external actors have the Pacific Island’s interests in mind, including respect for the prevailing economic, social, and political conditions in the region.”

Peters  added, almost as  an  afterthought:

“NZ also acknowledges new actors in the region, like China, and welcomes all partners in the Pacific on terms that take account of the Pacific’s needs, where quality projects are sustainable and delivered transparently.  We work with China in the Pacific and will continue to do so on those terms”.

 Peters  did  not   spell  out  what  he  expects   the  US   might   do.   But  given what he  calls  his close  working relationship  with US  Secretary of  State, Mike  Pompeo,  and the  groundwork   he has done  before his  Washington  visit,   he  is  clearly  eager  for   an   early  response for his plea  for  immediate  action by the US in the South Pacific.

One possibility he might be hoping for is that the   US decides  to  work with   NZ  on   specific aid projects.   Or   it  might show  the flag   with  military   exercises  in the region,  as  it  has done with Australia.

But  how    would   Labour stalwarts   feel   if  the  US  Navy   decided  to   send a   Navy  taskforce  on visits to the South Pacific, including  NZ?  Would  Jacinda  Ardern  be on the wharf to  welcome them?

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