Here’s everything we know about the 90-minute chinwag in the Oval Office.
Just like the finale to the fifth series of Line of Duty, you knew the New Zealand prime minister’s White House meeting with the US president was special because it was extended from an hour to a sweet 90 minutes. How did they fill their feature-length chat? Before we get into that, it’s worth a mention of the joint statement agreed by the leaders ahead of the meeting, which itself weighed in at a chunky 3,000 words. You can read it in full here, or simply enjoy our deployment of the greatest of all infographic forms, the word cloud:
Ahead of their dialogue, Biden quoted Yeats and praised his counterpart like this: “Your leadership has taken on a critical role in this global stage — and it really has — galvanizing action on climate change; the global effort to curb violence, extremism, and online, like happened in Christchurch.”
But what of the meeting itself? Drawn from Ardern’s subsequent comments to media and a transcript of a White House official’s background call, here’s what we know.
“The conversation was very warm, very direct, and there was a great understanding between the two of them,” said the administration official. And “things that really stood out were just the warmth, the intimacy, the alignment on a variety of issues”. Ardern: “Warm, friendly, shared values and shared challenges … a little of shared Irish heritage.” Disappointingly there was no evidence of massive melancholy kiwifruit or an esky of beef being in attendance.
The Pacific region
The “shared vision for the Indo-Pacific” figured highly. That included the newly signed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (which excludes China and only creates a “pathway” for trade deals); and support for climate change. They discussed the need, said Ardern, to “be in the Pacific on the Pacific’s terms”.
The leaders agreed on the importance of “stepping up engagement with the Pacific Island states”. Those nations “face tremendous challenges from a variety of fronts – including, obviously, recovering from Covid and the economic impacts of the pandemic”, as well as support for “vulnerable countries that are dealing with challenges caused by the climate crisis”.
The White House official said that among the issues discussed was “the importance of in-person engagement with the Pacific Island leaders, and the importance of the United States working closely with New Zealand and other partners as we continue to step up our efforts to engage more effectively in the Pacific”.
China in the Pacific
The immediate subtext to the above, of course, is the controversial new security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, and the Chinese foreign minister’s recent Pacific Island-hopping tour came up.
“They did not get into specific details about efforts by other countries, but they did discuss the importance of working together to present an affirmative vision for the region, as well as solidifying the traditional areas of cooperation and building new ones,” said the administration official.
Ardern said China did come up as “a topic of conversation”, which was inevitable given the Pacific is a “region that is increasingly contested”. Biden did not ask New Zealand to move closer in its alignment with the US versus China, because “there was no need” to do so.
The Ukraine invasion was part of the wider context for discussions. “They did not get into specifics” on the conflict in Europe, but “the president expressed great appreciation for New Zealand’s strong support for Ukraine in the face of the brutal Russian invasion and the importance of working together, as well as with the rest of the international community, to ensure support for Ukraine”.
The New Zealand prime minister “made her views very clear” on the CPTPP, referring to Ardern’s ongoing efforts to persuade the US to rejoin the trade pact it was central to negotiating, but which domestic pressures have rendered unimaginable in the short term. “A significant for New Zealand,” said Ardern. She had not given up, she told the touring New Zealand media pack. There was also discussion of resumed discussions on a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement – the US approach to bilateral deals, through which New Zealand would hope, for example, to see steel tariffs dropped.
The trilateral security pact signed last year between Australia, the UK and the US in many ways looks like a successor to Anzus, an arrangement that in many ways lies dormant. They didn’t get into that, though. “There was no specific discussion about Aukus itself,” said the official, pointing to references in the joint statement – though there you’ll find nothing more than the usual generalisations around “peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region” and “upholding the international rules-based order”.
The Christchurch call and extremism
The leaders talked domestic extremism, radicalisation, counterterrorism and violence – and “the nexus with online as well as offline issues”. Ardern updated Biden on the developments around the Christchurch Call, welcomed their participation and committed to pressing on with discussions with tech companies.
Gun law reform
In the aftermath of the massacre of children in Uvalde, Texas, from where Biden has just returned, Ardern has been asked a number of times on her trip about New Zealand’s reforms, including the banning of most semi-automatic weapons. The official again: “They share a very strong concern about the slaughter of innocents that these kinds of extremist attacks pose … She did not urge the president to any specific course of action, but there was discussion about the challenges and the horrible cost of these kinds of attacks … It was a very powerful discussion.”
The leaders also talked about space. (Thanks to Rocket Lab, New Zealand is the world’s fourth biggest launcher of rockets into the stars, apparently.) Per the White House readout: “They agreed that our two nations will work together to uphold and strengthen a rules-based international order for space and that we will work constructively with commercial industry, allies and partners, and through multilateral fora to support the safety, stability, security and long-term sustainability of space activities.”