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Chippy and his new mates (Image: Tina Tiller)
Chippy and his new mates (Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsMay 23, 2023

Chris Hipkins speed dates political leaders during Biden-less PNG visit

Chippy and his new mates (Image: Tina Tiller)
Chippy and his new mates (Image: Tina Tiller)

It was a rapid-fire 24 hours for the prime minister as he met with Pacific counterparts and political heavyweights in Port Moresby. Stewart Sowman-Lund was there.

On the outside wall of Port Moresby’s international airport hangs a large banner with the smiling faces of Papua New Guinea prime minister James Marape and India’s prime minister Narendra Modi. It’s big: the sort of billboard you might expect to see decked out with a poster for a new blockbuster film or displaying pristine beaches encouraging tourists to book a holiday. Here, though, it provided a slightly awkward backdrop for our prime minister Chris Hipkins, fresh off the Airforce 757, as he was formally welcomed to Papua New Guinea on Sunday night. As he sat in his motorcade en route to a leaders’ meeting at the Hilton Hotel, Hipkins would have seen lamp posts bearing smaller versions of the same photo of a grinning Modi. All this is to say, it was instantly apparent that while Hipkins’ speedy visit to Port Moresby presented important opportunities for him and for New Zealand, he wasn’t exactly the drawcard attraction for Papua New Guinea. So what was he doing there?

Meetings, meetings, more meetings

Papua New Guinea, which occupies the eastern half of the world’s second-largest island, New Guinea, has an official population of about 10 million, though a forthcoming census could see this number almost double. This was a big week for the Pacific nation, as a handful of world leaders and important political powers descended on Port Moresby. US president Joe Biden was meant to have been there for a summit as the United States and PNG signed up to a somewhat controversial security pact. The agreement was finalised last night and will give the United States near-uninhibited access to the waters and sky around PNG, a move clearly intended to push back at China’s growing influence in the Pacific. (PNG has refuted concerns from locals that it may impact on the country’s sovereignty.) It also provided support for the PNG military along with money for climate change mitigation.

Biden, who was set to stop over in Port Moresby for the US-Pacific Islands summit ahead of a planned meeting of Quad (that’s Australia, the US, India and Japan) leaders in Sydney, cancelled his visit at the last minute over economic pressures back home. Modi, meanwhile, was in PNG to meet with a number of regional leaders at an India-Pacific Islands Cooperation summit. In a sense, Hipkins just took advantage of this congregation of leaders. He had been invited by Biden to the US summit, but was not a part of the Indian event.

Chris Hipkins inspects a guard of honour in Port Moresby
(Photo: Andrew Kutan/AFP via Getty Images)

It took about a day for Hipkins to decide whether or not he’d make the trip to PNG after Biden cancelled, a day that would have involved a careful balancing act. On the one hand, the coolest kid at school had decided not to attend the party. But on the other hand, is it smart to also ditch the party if all of your other mates are still going? Hipkins, ultimately, chose to travel to Papua New Guinea and has remained diplomatic about the fact he won’t get an election year selfie with the leader of the free world. Having missed the chance to meet with his Pacific counterparts due to Cyclone Gabrielle in January, it would have looked bad to can this visit just because of Biden’s absence.

Hipkins was on the ground in PNG for just under 24 hours, with an itinerary that was akin to bilateral speed dating. Along with the aforementioned Modi and Marape, the prime minister managed to lock in face-to-face time with the Cook Islands’ Mark Brown and Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state who travelled in place of Biden. There was also a “courtesy call” with the local governor general and a meeting with local business leaders. Later in the day, he sat around the table with Pacific leaders for that official US summit.

Bolstering the tenuous speed-dating analogy, the prime minister described these meetings as largely introductory conversations. It was relationship building, he said, but also a chance to push New Zealand’s agenda and show support for our Pacific neighbours. “It will be our first time meeting in person and an opportunity to talk about the importance of the relationship between both countries,” Hipkins said ahead of his meeting with Modi.

There have been concerns raised that the security pact between PNG and the US could risk seeing the Pacific region become more militarised. The leaking of a draft copy of the agreement prompted protests while world leaders were in the country. Hipkins was reluctant to be drawn into conversations about the pact, telling media it was ultimately an issue for the respective Pacific countries to address. “New Zealand doesn’t support militarisation of the Pacific. Having said that, a military presence doesn’t necessarily signify militarisation,” he said. “For example, New Zealand has a military presence in the Pacific regularly following natural disasters, we send military assets up here to support countries that have been affected by natural disasters. We shouldn’t assume that all military partnerships are necessarily about conflict.”

Boisterous scenes at a Port Moresby market

While Modi, and to a lesser extent Blinken, were clearly the drawcard attractions for Papua New Guinea, there was one place in Port Moresby where Hipkins was given a truly royal welcome. At Gordon’s Market, there was more than just a big banner with Hipkins’ face (there were two). The New Zealand government has significantly supported Gordon’s Market, including a recent redevelopment, providing jobs for thousands of locals. The market has also been praised for providing safe work for women, something Jacinda Ardern emphasised during a visit in 2019. And yesterday, thousands of locals turned out to catch a glimpse of the prime minister, evoking scenes that can only be described as Hipsteria. 

Crowds at Gordon’s Market (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

If he wanted to avoid talking about security issues, this was the perfect cover. Arriving to cheers, chants and thunderous applause, vendors were desperate to tell Hipkins how grateful they were for the market and the work it provided. “I’m just happy I’ve got to see [Hipkins],” one told The Spinoff, while another added that they were “excited” by the visit. 

“Thank you for coming to the market,” they said. “We feel happy to share [this] and to see the prime minister. On behalf of my family, I want to say thank you. Thank you for helping our mothers and building our market.” Hipkins was the only political leader in Port Moresby who extended his schedule beyond hotels and conference rooms and met with members of the local community. He told the gathered crowd he was honoured to be there. Instead of sausage rolls, Hipkins was offered fresh produce, gifts and thanks.

Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund

From the overwhelming humidity of Gordon’s Market, Hipkins headed to his meeting with Blinken. He’d wandered around the market in a suit, possibly explaining why he turned up to the US Embassy with a sizeable can of Coke Zero. (We understand the Coke was actually provided by Blinken’s team, who had clearly done their research on the PM’s beverage of choice). It might not have been Biden, but the security at the embassy was intense enough. After navigating a motorcade traffic jam, which felt a bit like something out of Veep, media were finally able to head into the embassy and await the secretary of state (this being the US Embassy, there were giant cookies).

Hipkins thanked Blinken for the United States’ ongoing presence in the Pacific – a notable remark given his reluctance to comment on concerns about China’s presence in the region. “As a country very invested in the Pacific, we are very happy you [Blinken] are here and to see that involvement,” said Hipkins. “New Zealand and the United States have a number of interests in common, we have a lot of history between our two countries and a very important trading relationship.” Blinken called the partnership between the United States and New Zealand “bilateral, regional and global… we’re working together on virtually all the major issues”. 

Chris Hipkins, a Coke Zero and Antony Blinken (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

Hipkins has made it his goal to avoid too many lengthy overseas trips since taking office, in part because it’s an election year and he’ll want to spend time with voters, but also because gallivanting overseas isn’t exactly “bread and butter” during a cost of living crisis. His only scheduled future trip before October 14 is to the Nato leaders’ summit in Lithuania in July, which may be his chance to finally meet Biden, along with other heavyweights. A potential trip to China is in the works, which will mark the first time a New Zealand prime minister has visited since the pandemic.

This trip to Papua New Guinea was always going to be a 24-hour photo opportunity for Chris Hipkins. He’s a newish prime minister and has so far had limited opportunities to build relationships that, should he stay PM, he’ll want to sustain. It was against the backdrop of a security pact, but it was never going to be about the pact.

The streets of Port Moresby may have been lined with photos of other world leaders, but Hipkins certainly made his mark.

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