China, CER, co-operation and Covid-19 will be on the agenda when Anzac leaders meet in Queenstown

Scott Morrison  may  be  looking for a  break  after a  tough year  when he arrives in Queenstown at  the weekend,  but there’s  a  heavy  agenda  awaiting him.  It’s time  for Australia  and  NZ  to  rekindle  the  spirit  of  CER,  as  they battle the  aftermath  of the Covid pandemic, and  confront an  increasingly assertive global  power  in  China.

The visit will be the first face-to-face meeting between Ardern and her Australian counterpart since NZ shut its borders due to the pandemic. Morrison last met with Ardern in Sydney in late-February 2020, the day the first Covid-19 case was discovered in NZ.

Ardern,  announcing the  visit, said the Covid-19 recovery, regional and security issues would be discussed.  Those  issues  have  become  more  acute.

On  one  side  there  is  growing evidence that  the  pandemic  arose  not  from transmission  from animals  in  Wuhan, but  from a state-owned laboratory  in that  city.

On  another front,  both  countries  are  making  only  slow progress  with their  vaccination  programmes  (which opens  up  the  issue:  why didn’t  the two  governments  co-operate   in setting  up  a joint programme  to  produce  under  licence  one or  more  of the vaccines?).

An equally  serious  issue  which  The Economist magazine pinpointed  last week  lies  in what it called  “The  Isolated  Antipodes”.

While  Kiwis  and  Australians   can  enjoy  what  used  to be  known as  normal  life   because  they have almost eliminated  the novel coronavirus , the  fact  is    Covid-19 will  circulate for  years  to  come, even with vaccines.

“Antipodeans cannot  keep  it out  forever, ‘unless  they want  to be isolated  from the  world until the end of  time’ as  Alexander Downer, a  former Australian foreign  minister  said”.   

The  slow  rate  of  vaccination  in  both  countries impedes  progress  in  loosening  travel  restrictions.

The Economist  pointed  out acerbically, when a  new  wave  of  Covid-19  washed  over India  last  month, that Morrison barred  Australians  in India from returning – or they risked fines  and  jail  time.

“No  other  country has  threated  its  own people  thus. Nervy  Kiwis  balked  even at a  bubble  with Australia,  which  started  in April. That  is  about  as  ambitious  as Ardern  will  get for  now”.

The Economist  wound up its  report  with a  quote  from  a  Sydney  academic:

“Going  down the hermit  route  is a rejection of our  modern transformation  into  a  confident, multicultural country.”

It’s a quote which applies  as  much  to  NZ.

Whether  Morrison  and  Ardern  therefore can  frame  a  joint  approach should  be  a  key  item on  their  agenda.

Apart  from   Covid,  the  two   leaders   should  be focussing   on the  constitutional  crisis   in  Samoa,   formulating  a  policy  of exerting  pressure  either directly  or  through  the  UN  to   get  a  peaceful  transition.

An  even  bigger  shadow  on the Pacific  is  being  cast  by  China.

In her  primary  statement, Ardern noted  how discussions will

“ … centre on how Australia and New Zealand will meet the shared challenges we face. The key focus of the meeting will of course be our Covid-19 recovery as well as how we continue working together on key regional and security issues”.

China   has   bullied  Australia  on  trade  issues,  in  retaliation  for  Australia  calling  on the World  Health Organisation  to  investigate  the  origins of the Covid  pandemic.

That illustrates  the  problems  of  dealing  with  China  as  it  asserts its  claims  to  be a  dominant global  power. Australian   authorities  have  been  scathing  of  what  they  see  as  NZ’s  weak-kneed  attitude  to China.

They  were particularly  scornful  of  Agriculture  Minister   Damien  O’Connor when he  said  Australia  should show  “more  respect”  to  China.   Australia  may  be  even  more  dismayed with  NZ’s  Defence  Minister  Peeni  Henare,  who is  reported  to be planning  to  divert  more of  NZ’s defence  spending  to  defence  infrastructure rather  than  on modernising  the  equipment  of the  three  services.

Perhaps  in  preparation for  the  Morrison   visit, Foreign  Minister  Nanaia Mahuta   this  week appeared  to  be more  realistic in her  attitude  to  China  than  earlier when speaking to  The Guardian  (Australian edition).

She  said  NZ could  find  itself at  the   heart of  a  “storm” of anger from China.  Exporters needed to diversify to ensure they could survive deteriorating relations with Beijing.

The  Guardian  said  Mahuta’s comments came as the NZ government faces increasing pressure to take a firmer stance on human rights violations and crackdowns by China, putting the spotlight on the potential repercussions for countries who provoke Beijing’s ire.

Neighbouring Australia is in a deepening trade war with China, which Mahuta likened to being at the centre of a storm – one which could easily engulf NZ.

“We cannot ignore, obviously, what’s happening in Australia with their relationship with China. And if they are close to an eye of the storm or in the eye of the storm, we’ve got to legitimately ask ourselves – it may only be a matter of time before the storm gets closer to us,” she told The Guardian.

It was one of the minister’s more frank discussions of the vulnerability of NZ’s trade dependency on China – and a clear directive to local exporters that they should be seeking to redistribute some of those eggs to baskets elsewhere.

“The signal I’m sending to exporters is that they need to think about diversification in this context – Covid-19, broadening relationships across our region, and the buffering aspects of if something significant happened with China. Would they be able to withstand the impact?” she asked

China accounts for more than $33bn of NZ’s total trade and nearly 30% of exports.

Mahuta was careful to frame her message to exporters as part of a wider broadening of NZ’s connections across the Asia-Pacific.

“We’ve said that it’s ‘China, and,’ not ‘China, or’,” she said.

NZ would need to strengthen its relationships across the region in the coming years, she said.

“Trade is – while it is important, so is regional peace and stability.”

Let’s hope  that  Morrison  and  Ardern can   make  some  real  progress  on  those issues.  Here,  at  Point of Order,  we  are  not  holding our  breath.

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