VP debate draws attention to the prospect of Pence or Harris succeeding the next US president

Now the emperor has returned to his palace, the political focus in the US has switched to the Wednesday night debate [US time] between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris.

Donald Trump returned to the White house on Monday night, mounted the balcony of the White House, then stripped off his mask to defy the coronavirus that had sent him to Walter Reed military hospital. 

The floodlit scene resembled a Wagnerian opera minus the music – or  perhaps a performance by one of the more odious dictators from the 1930s.  Here was machismo, a president telling voters not to fear the virus, how he was feeling better than at any time in 20 years after emerging from the best medical care in the US despite his doctor saying – essentially – that he still wasn’t out of the woods and was on specialist medication.

So the debate between Harris and Pence becomes more significant because it is entirely possible that either could become president – Pence if Trump expires, Harris if Joe Biden holds the job for one term and then retires or something worse. 

Trump is 74, Biden 77.  Pence is 61 and Harris 55. Continue reading “VP debate draws attention to the prospect of Pence or Harris succeeding the next US president”

Trump is banking on economic revival being better for his re-election prospects than a rising death toll

Politics in the US aren’t for the faint-of-heart at the best of times but this year, with only six months to run to the elections, under President Donald Trump it has become a bizarre wonderland with the president changing tack at will and his prospects of re-election vaporising by the day as the economy slides rapidly downhill.

Viewed from NZ, the situation looks chaotic, changing daily, sometimes hourly, with no coherent vision beyond that of the medical experts and no evident US-wide strategy to contain (let alone defeat) the coronavirus, so the country might be in better shape.

No wonder NZ is so envied and PM Jacinda Adern so highly regarded across the US.

More than 1.2m people in the US have been infected with the coronavirus and by Thursday, more than 74,000 have died.   Only in New York State, where the widely-respected Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo imposed strict controls, has the rate of infection reached a plateau.

Elsewhere across the US the virus continues to spread inexorably. Continue reading “Trump is banking on economic revival being better for his re-election prospects than a rising death toll”

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%.      

Peters is off to Washington to push for greater US involvement in South Pacific

Deputy  PM Winston Peters,  who   is  heading  to  Washington  this week to hold high-level  talks,  has been at  pains to  emphasise  he wants to  get  the  US  more  involved  in the  South  Pacific.

Point of Order,  which last  month  foreshadowed  the visit,  underlined then that Peters is taking a   more hard-nosed  line  towards  China,   which has  been extending its   influence and  aid  into  territories   like  Vanuatu, Niue and  the Cook  Islands.

This week, in announcing  his talks with  US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and other senior members of the US Administration, Peters went out of his way   not only  to say  the  US  is   is a “very close strategic partner for New Zealand”, but  the  two countries “enjoy a deep, long-lasting friendship that is based on shared interests and democratic values”. Continue reading “Peters is off to Washington to push for greater US involvement in South Pacific”

Jacinda’s confrontation with hard-nose regional politics

Forget the platitudinous UN General Assembly and those feel-good soft media moments. Life on the international stage is much harder and more complicated.

PM Jacinda Ardern confronted hard-nose regional politics at APEC and the regional assembly in Singapore.  Few believe Malaysia’s PM Mahathir bin Mohamad’s broadside on China and the Pacific in front of the NZ media was a slip of the tongue.  The wily 93-year-old (according to officials) knew exactly what – and why – he said what he did in public.

Malaysia, like many in the region, has measured the weight and cost of China’s beneficence in Asia-Pacific. Some of NZ’s closest allies suspect NZ has been unthinkingly close to Beijing in recent years. Continue reading “Jacinda’s confrontation with hard-nose regional politics”

The US has some catch-up to do as China pushes into the Pacific

NZ  journalists  reporting  PM Jacinda Ardern’s   tap-dancing   at the  EAS  and  APEC  summits  were  engrossed in  such  events  as   her dinner  partners.  Was it to be the  US vice-president Mike Pence?  Sadly, no, it  was  Mrs Pence.

But little   was heard  of  the  diplomatic  heavy  lifting  by  Foreign  Minister  Winston  Peters.  He  held  key meetings  with  US  Secretary  of  State  Mike  Pompeo  and National  Security  Adviser    John Bolton.

In a  sense  these  meetings could be  seen  as   groundwork  for  what  will be  a  major  mission  next  month  to   the  US.

But   they   also  provided  an   opportunity   for Peters to  work  on  the theme of   his  Pacific  “re-set”   and  underline   that – in the  global  trial of strength  between  China  and  the   US – the   Pacific  is  a  theatre in  which  the US  needs to  re-balance  its  efforts.

Continue reading “The US has some catch-up to do as China pushes into the Pacific”

APEC forum will put Peters’ rebalancing policy to the test

The forthcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Port Moresby  is  going to provide a sharp test  for  NZ  diplomacy, in the wake of the re-assertion of a more  hard-nosed approach in  policy towards China  (as set out in  an earlier  Point of Order  post).

China is planning a  summit  of  Pacific Island   leaders  in the days  before the APEC  leaders’ meeting  with President  Xi  Jinping as its host.  This is  seen as  an  extension  of  China’s  reach  into NZ’s  Pacific neighbourhood  which prompted   NZ’s deputy PM Winston Peters to  warn  of moves by China to  fill  a  “vacuum”  in the  long-neglected  region.

Australia and New Zealand have long regarded Oceania as their backyard but China has become increasingly assertive in the region over the past decade.  Now  President  Xi   is expected to  have  a cartload of inducements  to  offer  the   cash-starved region. Continue reading “APEC forum will put Peters’ rebalancing policy to the test”

NZ’s voice missing from chorus of protests over jailing of journalists in Myanmar

Guest correspondent:   Ruthless military dictators are not given to taking notice of outsiders but that should not dissuade the New Zealand government from adding its voice to international protests at the seven-year jail sentences given two Reuters’ journalists in Myanmar.

The sentences followed a trial dubbed a travesty of justice by the United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, and were condemned by the European Union.

US vice president Mike Pence, moreover, said the reporters should be commended – not imprisoned – for their work exposing human rights violations and the mass killings of ethnic Rohingya civilians.

Continue reading “NZ’s voice missing from chorus of protests over jailing of journalists in Myanmar”