|It came at a “critical moment” according to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, referring to her meeting yesterday with US President Joe Biden. She was talking about the need for New Zealand and its superpower ally to have dialogue in the midst of their panic over China’s increasing diplomatic presence in the Pacific region.
In fact, Ardern’s whole US trip came at a “critical moment” for her own government. She desperately needed a decent good news story, given that things have gone so badly for Labour in recent months. Ardern will be hoping that the trip resets the public’s increasingly unfavourable view of her leadership and the competence of her colleagues. She will also be hoping that it illustrates that Labour are dealing with the China-Pacific issue, given that Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has been missing in action.
A sales triumph
Ardern’s trip is being seen as a triumph, and not just by the select group of journalists and business people who accompanied her. There has been positive headline after positive headline, showing the value of the whole exercise, not just for the country but for the Labour Government.
Critics might say that little of substance has actually come out of the trip. There were no significant announcements made, or agreements signed. However, there were plenty of good promotional photo opportunities and speeches made, and relationships nurtured. These are invaluable, and such symbolic and intangible aspects of the trip have rightfully been highlighted by the media.
After all, this was primarily a trade and tourism promotional trip. It was a chance for the Prime Minister to do what she does best: communicate and persuade. The Government’s line that New Zealand is “open for business” will yield results. Ardern’s appearance on TV shows will boost New Zealand’s profile.
Now that the trip is over, tributes have been flowing from the media and commentariat. Newshub’s Amelia Wade labelled it “mission accomplished”. Toby Manhire of the Spinoff said the trip “exceeded any reasonable expectations”. And Stuff’s Luke Malpass explained: “The White House trip, provided a capstone on what has been a successful tour of the US by Jacinda Ardern. The first part of the trip was about shamelessly selling New Zealand, while the second half was more politics.”
Even leftwing blogger Martyn Bradbury, who has been rather scathing lately about Ardern and her Government’s lack of delivery, had this to say: “There is little doubt that the Prime Minister’s visit to America has been an enormous diplomatic victory in capturing hearts and minds. She has generated a level of goodwill unmatched by the last 5 Prime Ministers combined. From Harvard, to the Late Show to the White House, she has dazzled and inspired.”
Of course, there will be some New Zealanders who remain unmoved. RNZ’s Emile Donovan says: “Ardern’s trip has led to some criticism and accusations that the prime minister is more concerned with burnishing her international image than effecting meaningful change at home.”
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This is the view of the Australian Spectator magazine which pointed out this week that “there is a considerable disconnect between her high regard internationally and the discontent she is facing domestically”. The magazine titled their story: “Jacinda Ardern is New Zealand’s Gorbachev” – i.e. feted abroad but less positively received at home.
New Zealanders love to see our prime ministers in the international media and on the international stage. But when it occurs at a time of increasing poverty, rising cost of living pressures, and the growing perception that the Government isn’t delivering, then the glamour and celebrity of such trips can be jarring.
The Biden meeting and the Pacific
What will be remembered from Ardern’s trip is her meeting with Biden. The key issue for discussion was China in the Pacific, hence Ardern’s description of the meeting occurring at a “critical moment”.
The geopolitical reset that China is currently carrying out in the Pacific has been a damaging story for the Government, and for Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta in particular. The Government is perceived to have dropped the ball on our crucial relationships with Pacific Island nations at the very time the Asian superpower is seeking to develop a very strong partnership with New Zealand’s closest neighbours.
Mahuta is being severely criticised over revelations that since she took the job about two years ago, she has visited only one Pacific country. Although much of this has been down to Covid, Mahuta also doesn’t appear to have kept up much communication with her Pacific counterparts. The suspicion is that Mahuta has been more engaged with her controversial Three Waters agenda instead.
Some of the language to come out of the Ardern-Biden meeting also indicates how the New Zealand Government is shifting further into the US geopolitics camp. Ardern talked about the importance of relations with “like minded countries”, and after the meeting they spoke of the US committing to boosting its resources and relations in the Pacific.
Perhaps more significantly, the joint statement appears to commit New Zealand to a much closer defence alignment with the US – maybe even becoming a full military ally again. This will raise further questions about New Zealand’s so-called independent foreign policy, and whether the country is now going to be lined up against China, and therefore jeopardising its lucrative trade relationship.
The US-NZ statement issued from the meeting certainly showed that the two countries are united in their concern about China’s increased presence. In general, the outcome represented a hardening of the alliance between the two countries against China’s role in the region. But they were both careful not to make the meeting appear to be some sort of emergency meeting about what is happening in the Pacific.
Both countries are very clearly focused on using “soft power” in their ambitions to reassert their role in the Pacific. For example, rather than condemning any of the Pacific countries for entering into partnerships with China, Biden and Ardern spoke of trying to help the Pacific Island via their own partnerships rather than through dominating the region. For example, in announcing the US would reassert itself in the region, Biden stated: “We are not coming to dictate or lay down the law. We have more work to do in those Pacific Islands as well”.
One US Official gave the following report on Ardern and Biden’s private discussion about the need to use soft power: “They also had some fairly detailed discussion about the importance of in-person engagement with 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.”
Expect, therefore, to see more of this new soft power approach from New Zealand. There seems to be a strong awareness that western countries, having neglected the region and often played an exploitative or even colonial role, now have to be somewhat more subtle and humble towards the Pacific. It is likely that Ardern will now cease using language conveying ownership of the Pacific nations – she has until now been asserting that the islands are in New Zealand’s “backyard”.
In essence, the rise of China means that New Zealand and its allies need to lift their game and make even better offers to our neighbours than China – this will surely include greater aid and support. Coming out of their White House meeting, Biden appears to be on side with this softer strategy.
So, once again, Ardern has in the face of her less competent colleagues, managed to salvage her administration’s reputation. This success in foreign policy couldn’t have come at a more critical moment.