Saturday, March 25, 2006

Fran O'Sullivan: Peters must get real on US and Pacific

Foreign Minister Winston Peters got the headlines he wanted this week - fulsome appreciation for New Zealand's role in the Pacific from a visiting US official.

That Peters fed the line to US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill in the first place was not lost on political reporters present at their brief "standup".

The Foreign Minister had, after all, used his first formal foreign affairs speech and subsequent interviews to underline that he sometimes felt the US did not fully appreciate the role this country plays in ensuring stability in the neighbourhood.

But that was weeks ago. It would have been much more impressive if Peters had emerged from the bilateral meeting having persuaded Hill to co-announce a joint Pacific initiative - not just platitudinous comments designed to pump up our Foreign Minister's ego and assuage his extreme sensitivities about his role.

The Peters appointment has led to mixed messages about New Zealand's relationship with the US.

The New Zealand First leader is much more obviously pro the United States - and other traditional allies - than many in the Cabinet. But he has repeatedly accused journalists of misquoting him when his reported comments on the US relationship are later considered by influential Cabinet ministers to be in advance of the Government's position.

Helen Clark and Phil Goff - the Minister who chairs the Cabinet's foreign relations committee - want to ensure that Peters works inside Government policy when it comes to dealing with Uncle Sam, not fly solo.

It is Trade Negotiations Minister Phil Goff - not Peters - who Clark has asked to represent her Government at next month's United States New Zealand Partnership Forum in Washington DC.

Peters is right to place more emphasis on the Pacific and New Zealand's role in endeavouring to ensure stability in an increasingly vulnerable region.

The economies of many of these small Pacific Island nations are vulnerable as the forces of globalisation pit more efficient agricultural producers against theirs. But the truth is New Zealand's status in the Pacific is declining as big powers such as China, Japan, France - and now the US - muscle in.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's upcoming Pacific economic forum in Fiji has upset the traditional power balance by undercutting the Pacific Islands Forum, to which Australia and New Zealand belong, as the prime regional economic forum.

Speculation that another Fiji coup was in the making, on top of the recent Solomon Islands troubles, difficulties in Vanuatu and ongoing issues with Papua New Guinea is what's really driving renewed US interest in New Zealand's Pacific role - and whether we are up to containing Beijing (although Washington does not use those words).

Hill had no doubt been primed by his State Department officials over our Foreign Minister's sensitivities to criticism and the political necessity to score his own public endorsement to help Peters underline that he is making a difference by persuading the US to re-rate its relationship in terms of New Zealand's Pacific role.

But Hill's decision to repeatedly reaffirm this position at his subsequent press conference bordered on farcical.

In truth, Hill's formal press conference was a pretty desultory affair. Anyone wanting to get an insight into just how the US views its East Asia challenge - and New Zealand's role in the region - would not have gleaned much from Hill's public comments.

What we do know is this: US concerns over China's rapidly spreading influence - and the role Clark is carving out for this country in the emerging East Asian political architecture - means New Zealand is seen more sharply by Washington.

Officials later pointed journalists to a statement Hill made to a sub-group of the House International Relations Committee on "East Asia in Transition: Opportunities and Challenges for the United States." It is telling.

Hill talks about how the US challenge in East Asia and the Pacific is to open markets, facilitate trade, promote transparency, fight corruption and support efforts to combat poverty and promote sustained growth.

The US is reaching out and forging free trade agreements with dynamic regional economies. New Zealand's absence from the US list is pointed, although Hill tried to offset the obvious snub at his press conference by pointing out the economic upside to a New Zealand trade deal for the US was slight.

The US needs to look harder at this country's strategic utility if it is concerned about Pacific alignments.

Just one "Cabinet" ranking official from the Bush Administration - Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns - has visited New Zealand.

Chinese President Hu Jintao visited 18 months ago. Early next month, Premier Wen Jiabao will also visit - the seventh member of the Chinese Politburo to come here in the past few years. China is also negotiating a free trade deal with New Zealand. These are the hard messages Peters needs to get across - not simply poodle-faking.

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