Ardern and Biden keen to work together as US restores its relationships with world agencies

PM Jacinda Ardern’s cordial exchange with President-elect Joe Biden went far better than anyone dared hope. Both sides were pleased. As one US official said, they are certainly kindred spirits.

Biden wants to “reinvigorate” the US-NZ relationship which, considering the heights it reached under former Foreign Minister Winston Peters, means Wellington and Washington DC have finally put away any lingering resentments from the 1980s and the Anzus crisis.

Biden is keen to work with NZ on broad Pacific issues but, as he points out, the US will have to work with friends on the task.  When everyone circumspectly refers to “issues”, they really mean China with its diplomatic, economic and military ambitions in the Pacific.

Biden and his new Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken (a foreign policy veteran), want to try and reset the US-China relationship.

This week Australian PM Scott Morrison urged Washington and Beijing to “show more latitude” to smaller nations. Partners and allies needed “a bit more room to move” as strategic competition intensifies in the region.

He urged the United States and China to show more “latitude” to smaller nations, warning that partners and allies need “a bit more room to move” as strategic competition intensifies in the region. Morrison also said the victory of Democrat Joe Biden might ease tensions between China and the US, he urged both powers not to force nations into corners.

In a speech to a major UK think tank, Morrison called on both great powers to dial down hostilities, declaring Australia does not want to be forced into a “binary choice” between Washington and Beijing.

China’s Government has ramped up criticism of Australia and hit several exports with trade sanctions, accusing the Federal Government of unfairly blocking Chinese investment and smearing China with false accusations of espionage and foreign interference.

Australia’s actions were not part of a strategic campaign to contain China and the contest between the incumbent and rising powers “heavily clouded and distorted” Beijing’s views, he said.

As an even smaller partner, NZ treads carefully and tries to separate trade, strategic and political issues.  But Biden’s evident indication that the US wants to open more cooperation with NZ raises an interesting question.  While Anzus commitments are on hold, defence cooperation between NZ and the US increases almost on a daily basis beyond the recent aircraft purchases.  The RNZN frigate HMNZS Te Kaha is currently working up off the US west coast after completing a major refit.

Biden has been careful to stress he wants moral and non-partisan foreign policy which coincides with Jacinda Ardern’s own perspectives.  She hopes to lead a trade mission to the Americas next year and Biden says he looks forward to hosting her.

They have similar attitudes to climate change. Biden has appointed John Kerry, a former senator and former secretary of state, as his climate change supremo with Cabinet rank working out of the White House.

Kerry is well-disposed to NZ and Biden likes the NZ policies shifting to renewal energy and the phasing out of combustion-engine vehicles.

Ardern and Biden want to work together to repair the World Trade Organisation, almost neutered by the US refusal to agree to new judges to hear disputes.  She will also on side with him as he stops the US withdrawal from the World Health Organisation, ordered by President Donald Trump.

She invited him to visit NZ (he said he well-remembered his 2016 visit). This might have been possible had NZ decided to host an “in-person” heads of government meeting at the APEC summit in November. Last year it declared this would be virtual because of COVID-19 19.

Some senior officials thought this was far too hasty. Now Covid-19 vaccines are nearing, should this be amended to – perhaps – a scaled-down meeting with APEC’s world leaders in Auckland?

Last week, Morrison said he hoped Biden may attend celebrations in Canberra in September to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Anzus treaty. Biden would hardly come to both countries a couple of months apart.

On the other hand, if the APEC summit remains virtual, perhaps Ardern could visit Australia in September and mark the anniversary by rejoining Anzus.

The anti-nuclear battles of the 1980s are far in the past. The US no longer carries nuclear weapons on surface warships other than aircraft carriers which (like their current submarines) are too big to visit NZ ports.

A new and nuanced US approach under Biden should assuage even left-wing sensitivities and Ardern could place an even firmer mark on NZ foreign policy. What’s more, it would give us a seat and a voice at the table – which is all previous governments prior to 1984 really wanted.

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