Audrey Young: Apec summit a moment in history for Ardern and New Zealand

OPINION:

There is no historic comparison to the global focus on a New Zealand Prime Minister that Jacinda Ardern will face tonight.

Yes, a New Zealand Prime Minister has chaired Apec before; Jenny Shipley very ably did so in 1999 in Auckland when the most pressing on the agenda was a regional security crisis centred on East Timor.

There was no sense of global crisis as there is now with Covid-19.

There was no sense of great-power tension between the United States and China that now sits behind most international summits these day.

And the global reach of the internet had barely begun.

The meeting tonight will bring together some of the planet’s heaviest hitters: US president Joe Biden, China president Xi Jinping, Russian president Vladimir Putin, and Japan’s newish PM Prime Yoshihide Suga, who is about to welcome the world’s athletes to the Covid Olympics.

Oddly, Ardern herself may be as well known as any of them, and more. New Zealand is no longer known for its sheep, mountains and hobbits; it is best known internationally for its prime minister.

She had a fairy-tale rise to power, then an unexpected pregnancy in her first year in office; she handled the Christchurch mosque massacre brilliantly; and she has led a world-beating response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tonight’s meeting is being called “a retreat” and the public wont get more than a few seconds glance of the meeting itself.

But interest will be massive, especially in Xi Jinping and Biden.

It will be the first meeting Xi and Biden have attended together since Biden was sworn in six months ago.

Since then, the United States has declared that the era of engagement with China is over and it is now the era of competition.

It will be the first outing for Xi since his speech a couple of weeks ago when he said China’s rise was inevitableand threatening a “wall of steel” of 1.4 billion people for any country that bullied, oppressed or subjugated China.

It will be the first meeting Xi has attended with Scott Morrison since China announced a series of trade reprisals against Australia for its no-holds-barred criticism of China over its handling of Covid.

Ardern visited Beijing in April 2019 and met Xi. In nearly four years as Prime Minister, she has not had an invitation to the United States, and until Biden’s election, had not sought one.

The chief executiveof foreign affairs and trade, Chris Seed, arrived in Washington yesterday to further advance New Zealand’s US strategy, to make up for the lost years of the Trump Administration and push for a much deeper engagement.

Tonight’s meeting follows Ardern’s important positioning speech on Wednesday when she aligned New Zealand with the United States-led “Indo Pacific” club.

They are the group of countries – US, Japan, Australia, India, UK, Germany and the EU – which basically want to prevent China from replacing the United States as the dominant power in the Asia Pacific region.

The White House left a message with Ardern’s office overnight that Biden wanted to speak with Ardern this morning before tonight’s meeting. You can bet that he, or at least his foreign affairs advisers, were thrilled with her positioning speech.

New Zealand was unfairly accused of snuggling up to China because it did not want the Five Eyes alliance to be its proxy for foreign policy statements on matters to do with China.

The positioning speech isn’t quite as gung ho as countries such as Australia are.

It had a modicum of reluctance about it. Ardern made the point that the term Indo Pacific has been designed to exclude some countries – clearly meaning China – and that she wanted the concept of theIndo Pacific be “inclusive” – which is code for encouraging engagement with China.

But that is the New Zealand way. It is not neutral. It is not non-aligned. It is allied to Australia. It is part of Five Eyes. But it does not want to squander its good relationships with others without serious cause. That imperative is even more relevant in an ongoing crisis and when it is the chair of Apec, which is still a an important body in the Asia Pacific region.

The Asia Pacific has not disappeared, even if the United States has dropped the term for its own strategic reasons.

There are no great expectations of a tangible outcome tonight on the Covid front other than a communique which sets out areas of agreement.

There will certainly be no need to mention the term Indo Pacificin the communique– India and the Indian Ocean is not part of Apec which, let’s not forget, stands for Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation.

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