The trade mission to Singapore and Japan has delivered results but concerns over Indo-Pacific security dominate writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell for The Bulletin.
The Singapore stretch
The prime minister is five days into her first trade mission in two years, which began in Singapore. As described by Newsroom’s political editor, Jo Moir, this portion of the trip was a sprint set against a backdrop of hotels and conference rooms. There seemed to be a few glitches that perhaps point to a trip organised in a hurry, encumbered by the logistics of travel during a pandemic. Moir observed that for the prime minister, the ability to speak frankly with leaders like Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong is especially important at the moment and would’ve been a worthwhile outcome of the bilateral meeting between the two. Derek Cheng from the NZ Herald called Lee’s frankness (paywalled) “refreshing”, especially when it comes to the prospect of the US joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Climate change added as a priority
The visit to Singapore delivered a new commitment from both countries to work together on climate change issues. Climate change and sustainability have been added as the fifth pillar to the New Zealand-Singapore Enhanced Partnership. Lee singled out aviation emissions as a priority for New Zealand to combat, while Ardern spoke of low-emissions shipping. 20% of our exports go via Singapore, so supply chain resilience was also a focus. Ardern announced the formation of a joint working group between the two countries to work together on the issue. Stuff’s Henry Cooke writes that most of this amounts to officials agreeing to collaborate, with no concrete policy changes from either country, but that “no news is sometimes good news” as trade with Singapore is already pretty robust.
The other C words
While Covid-19 threw a minor spanner in the works with three delegates not able to travel onto Japan after testing positive (likely a historical infection), another C word loomed large over the trip after news broke of the defence pact signed between China and the Solomon Islands. In an interview with the BBC, Ardern ruled out the need for New Zealand to join Aukus, the security alliance between the US, UK and Australia. She reiterated her position on China as a very important trading partner and said our relationship with them was mature. It’s a position that’s been criticised as being soft on China. Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd recently urged New Zealand and Australia to begin military patrols in the South Pacific in response to China’s growing presence there.
Swaying, sad kiwifruit provide lighter moment
The trip got its viral social media moment courtesy of some kiwifruit mascots swaying to a doleful soundtrack at a Zespri event in Japan yesterday. I recommend watching this video from Henry Cooke. Later on, Ardern and trade minister Damien O’Connor posed with the mascots. These moments naturally stand out, especially on social media. Awkward posing and enthusiasm for produce are a necessary part of any diplomatic trip and provide some rays of light between the clouds gathering over China’s influence in the Pacific. They certainly aren’t the whole of the trip, no matter what it looks like, and last night the prime minister met with Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida. Japan is our fourth largest trading partner, the third largest economy in the world and before this trip, Ardern had not yet spoken to Kishida. The pair announced an agreement to share intelligence information late last night. Ardern will fly home on Saturday.