Why This White House Encounter Is One Jacinda Ardern Probably Never Thought She Would
ANALYSIS: It didn’t take long for the world to change. When Jacinda Ardern became prime minister in 2017, she probably had no idea that five years later she would be talking with US President Joe Biden about wanting to get much more US engagement in the Pacific. Or that China’s stealthy incursions into the region would have become so direct and open.
Yet it is one of the issues that will be at the forefront of Wednesday’s meeting at the White House. It comes as the rules-based international order, which has been imperfectly maintained by the United States since World War II, is under sustained pressure from China and outright attack from Russia.
Essentially, what we’re seeing now is the start of a fight over who sets the rules by which the world operates. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave an important speech last Thursday on the American approach to Chinain which he clearly lays out the challenge:
“China is the only country with both the intention to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological might to do so. Beijing’s vision would take us away from the universal values that have underpinned so much progress in the world over the past 75 years.
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China is not a nation that wants to play by other people’s rules. Seeing itself as the modern embodiment of an ancient and sprawling empire, it seeks to establish its own rules. He wants his own institutions that others join. While arguably the biggest beneficiary of the US-led rules-based global trading order (a point raised by Blinken), China believes that precisely because the current rules have been shaped by the West, they are almost automatically hostile to China’s interests.
In our backyard, the Pacific, the practical result of this is a new security pact with the Solomon Islands and a proposed sprawling economic and security agreement for 10 Pacific nations and China. This is in addition to Chinese loans extended to various Pacific countries over the past decade.
It’s part of a larger game, which has been going on for decades, to delegitimize the United States in the Pacific and replace it with China.
That is why it will be at the top of the agenda.
More broadly, when Ardern meets Biden, it will be the culmination of months of work, disorganized by Covid, but nonetheless secure. The importance of having real face-to-face meetings cannot be overstated. They are an opportunity to build relationships and put a face to a name. They are also a chance for each leader to determine the cut of the other’s gib. That’s why leaders come together.
Before Donald Trump’s venal America-First posturing, there were important meetings with American presidents that yielded results. John Key’s visits with Barack Obama have helped further mend a relationship that has been mending for nearly 40 years since New Zealand became nuclear-free and then subsequently withdrew from the Anzus Treaty.
The way meetings work is there are pictures with the leaders before they head into the Oval Office and when they walk out they sit in lounge seats and talk about what they have speak. Body language — and how comfortable Ardern and Biden are after that — will be key to watch.
Ardern will also meet Vice President Kamala Harris before meeting Biden. These conversations are expected to revolve around gun control and space exploration. The development of the New Zealand space industry, led by Rocket Lab, could be one of the surprising talking points of this meeting.
Ardern wanted to water the expectations of this meeting. Leaders will almost certainly not emerge with new initiatives or new agreements. They will also talk about trade, but the US domestic political landscape will not allow for any new trade deals or market access in the near term. And of course guns will be on the list after the Uvalde shooting, as well as Ukraine.
But with New Zealand’s part of the world becoming increasingly contested, it will be worth just talking about what’s going on and how the United States can truly engage. New Zealand will get closer to the United States, it will be event-driven and thanks to the Covid, this meeting will be the first in a new geostrategically contested world.