There is more to Asia than China

: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 2nd Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership summit (RCEP) on the sidelines of the 33rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Singapore.  (Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
 

The intrigue and speculation about the state of New Zealand’s relationship with China took another turn yesterday with the news that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s proposed trip there in four weeks is now unlikely to happen.

It has been postponed to an indeterminate date.

People in Wellington who keep a close watch on the relationship were divided as to whether this was intended to send a message to the Government or was simply a product of the busy agenda for foreign visits in Beijing.

But the Government did have a big  foreign policy win to trumpet yesterday  with the announcement that Singapore was ready to go ahead with not only the Free Trade Agreement upgrade but also the news that the Enhanced Partnership between the two countries was going to be formally signed when Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visits New Zealand next year.

Australia already has a similar agreement with Singapore and the Minister who launched New Zealand’s negotiations, National’s Foreign Minister, Murray McCully has described the New Zealand agreement as essentially bringing Singapore into the CER with Australia and New Zealand.

Under the upgraded free trade agreement announced yesterday, , New Zealand visitors to Singapore will gain visa-free entry for three months – up from the current one month – and companies with offices in Singapore will be able to send employees to work there for up to eight years, up from five years.

"New Zealand's relationship with Singapore is our closest in South East Asia. As small advanced economies, we share an interest in maintaining international trade rules. As such our shared commitment to upgrading our free trade agreement is more important than ever,” Jacinda Ardern said.

“This upgrade makes it easier for New Zealanders to do business in Singapore. In the year to June 2018, 24,280 New Zealanders travelled to Singapore including 6400 who travelled for business. Being able to stay longer is another way of helping Kiwi businesses explore new opportunities in South East Asia.

But that is only the pre-amble for the much bigger Enhanced Partnership agreement.

“Today’s announcement marks the first step towards the launch of a broader Enhanced Partnership with Singapore that will be launched next year. It will see even greater co-operation between our two countries across trade, science, innovation, the environment, education, the arts, security and defence.”

“We look forward to welcoming Prime Minister Lee to New Zealand next year for the launch of our Enhanced Partnership, and the signing of the upgraded CEP.,” Jacinda Ardern said.

The 2015  Australian agreement goes well beyond trade.

It was signed in 2015 and provides for Singaporean military training bases on Australian soil, enhanced intelligence sharing, a review of Foreign Investment Review Board thresholds for Singaporean investment in Australia, an of the Singapore Free Trade Agreement and more student exchanges.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said at the time he hoped the military relationship between Australia and Singapore would be “elevated to the same sorts of levels” that we share with Britain and the US.

Economically the aim was to have a seamless relationship by 2025, similar to New Zealand’s, with special consideration for Singapore investors in Australian and a commitment to more free trade.

It is within that context that Singapore reacted very strongly against the-then new Labour Government’s restrictions on house sales to foreigners.

But in June the Government exempted Singaporeans from the ban.

The other outstanding matter between the two countries is whether New Zealand will allow a Singaporean Air Force F15 squadron to be based at Ohakea.

While Manawatu mayors are in favour, it is understood negotiations over the proposal are hung up on who would pay for the infrastructure required.

Whether Ardern would get an invitation to China next month has been the subject of considerable speculation in Wellington.

She has already been bumped once on plans to visit Bejing in October when the Chinese cancelled to make way for a visit by Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Her visit was intended not only to underline New Zealand's relationship with China, but she was also going to open our new  Embassy in the city.

Back in May Foreign Minister Winston Peters was outlining the plans to open the embassy to a meeting in Dunedin and asked a representative of Ngai Tahu whether they could arrange a gift of some pounamu (greenstone) to be placed n the Embassy.

He said it would be needed later in the year.

However, China experts spoken to by POLITIK don't see the lack of any visit next month as a snub.

“It wasn’t cast in stone, it was neither on nor not on,” said one.

The fact that the former Chinese Ambassador to New Zealand, Wang Lutong, is now Deputy Director-General of the Protocol Department suggests that New Zealand has a friend in a crucial position in terms of organising visits in Beijing.

And also that Trade Minister David Parker, spent over an hour with China’s Commerce Vice Minister,  vice minister Wang Shouwen who is responsible for the bilateral trade relationship and negotiations, and reports directly to Vice Premier Liu He on WTO reform and US-China trade adds to the argument that though there may be some reservations, the NZ- China relationship appears to be on track albeit with not quite the same enthusiasm that existed under the National Government. 

But things in the region are changing; the US-China relationship has cooled and Australia which supported the US criticism of China has had its own difficulties  with Beijing. 

Meanwhile a Wellington foreign affairs audience was reminded last night that China is not the only large country in Asia. 

Indonesian Professor  Dewi Fortuna Anwar, last night delivering the Victoria University of Wellington's Centre for Strategic Studies prestigious annual Kippenberger lecture said the overall situation in East Asia was more complex than simply China and the US. 

She said China was only to get “bigger and bigger and bigger”. 

“But so is India, so is Indonesia," she said. 

“So I do believe this is going to get much more complex than China and the US only.”

Her analysis might offer an alternative to New Zealand policymakers, worried about Chinese dominance in the region but equally wary of falling back on dependence on the old ANZUS allies, Australia and the US who are much more focused o confronting China.

Applying this analysis, it might be that the Prime Minister is actually better occupied where she is, at the East Asian summit than worrying about ceremonial trips to Beijing.

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