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%.