No, Peters won’t come home with an FTA – but high-ranking Americans have been listening to him

Foreign Minister Winston Peters is heading home after his Washington DC visit where, according to officials, virtually every door was opened for him. The visit also confirms how much the US is listening to NZ’s independent voice in Pacific and Asian affairs.  The prospects for a free trade agreement are improving.

Vice-President Mike Pence went out of his way to see Peters again.  Peters also held discussions with President Trump’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, at the ministerial conference to advance religious freedom,  and with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and two influential senators, Cory Gardner who chairs a sub-committee on East Asia and Pacific and the international cyber security policy, and Ed Markey on the foreign relations committee.

A few years back  NZ’s foreign minister would have been lucky to meet numbers three of four in each agency.

This is a busy time in Washington DC ahead of the August summer break but senior figures in the Trump administration cleared their desks to see Peters.  His meeting with Pence had not been signalled before Peters  left  NZ  on Monday but Peters  has succeeded in  building a  close  relationship with him,  first  at  the APEC summit in Papua  New Guinea  in  November and subsequently  on a visit to  Washington, where Peters  pressed  the case  for a  FTA.  They met for a  third time  on this visit.

All the  high-ranking   members of  the Trump  camp  were keen to hear his perspectives on Asia-Pacific developments at a time when when the region is morphing into a bi-polar system – the US versus China.

Washington has noticed how NZ has recast its previous infatuation with Beijing. This shift was driven by Peters’ speech last November, when he called for a more muscular approach to the Pacific.

Encouraged by Peters, MFAT has drilled down into the essence of the Trump administration’s foreign and trade policy (setting to one side the daily twittering eructations).

According to some long-term Washington watchers, this suggests NZ is better placed than at any time to have its voice heard in the US capital.

PM Jacinda Adern’s sharp criticism of the president following his “go home” taunts certainly registered in the US capital.  But it was offset by the praise which Christchurch mosque attack survivor Farid Ahmed heaped on the president’s leadership during a surprise visit to the Oval Office.

In  a  speech Peters gave  at  the  Centre  of  Strategic and  International Studies, he  underlined   how  the   US’ limited engagement in  trade  agreements  in the Indo-Pacific  “is of  real concern to  NZ”.

He outlined the  multilateral  trade agreements of the  10 Asean  nations and the  CPTPP pact.

The  upshot is that those countries which have engaged in this manner, they are  able to move goods, services and investments across each other’s  borders  with lower  costs and much more business certainty.

“And the converse is also true — for those   countries not  participating, they are by  definition becoming less  competitive   relative to  those countries  who are progressively  removing  barriers  to  trade and  economic  activity”.

He  said  most countries in Asia  have been actively  negotiating trade deals with China, a country which has recorded  staggering  economic growth.   This is one obvious  symbol of the greater trade engagement  across  Asia, whereas the US  in the past 20 years has negotiated only  three FTAs  which  represented  just  12%  of GDP.

While  US exports worldwide  have grown by 5.3% on average since  1990, the share of  US exports to NZ has fallen from  18%  to  10%.      

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