New Zealand Embassy Jakarta, Indonesia

From the Ambassador's blog: The Value of Summits

APEC leaders

From the Ambassador's blog:

The Value of Summits

The annual APEC Summit was held recently in Bali back to back with the East Asia Summit in Brunei.  I was talking to a journalist as we waited for the Sultan of Brunei to become available for a meeting with Prime Minister Key and we got onto the question of the value of these big regional meetings.

The journalist mentioned that any process rich in acronyms is virtually guaranteed not to get a good run in the New Zealand media.  I expressed disappointment, as a foreign service officer for whom these events are important, but agreed we needed to change the narrative.

I’ve been pondering the point and thought I’d use this blog to explain why I think these meetings are valuable.

The main point is really that relationships matter.  Finding ways for our Prime Minister and other senior ministers to spend time with counterparts from other countries has value.  It enables them to get to know each other better so they can have more forward-leaning conversations and cut to the chase around bilateral, regional or global issues a lot quicker than would otherwise be the case.  It’s a lot easier to raise a delicate subject with someone you know, than a stranger.  You’re more likely to solve a problem or take forward a new initiative with a friend than with someone you don’t know well.

The Bali and Brunei events provided the Prime Minister with time to talk substantively in formal sit-down meetings with 13 leaders (across the two summits 25 countries/economies are represented).  It’s a bit of a rush, 30 minutes here and 45 there, but it’s a very efficient way to meet partners and progress New Zealand interests.  Add to that considerable amounts of time that leaders spent together in holding rooms or seated together at conference sessions or dinners, and it’s clear that over 4.5 days the Prime Minister had unrestricted and substantial access to our top regional partners.  He worked the rooms very effectively, talking to all his counterparts.

Put another way, if Mr Key was making visits to their countries, the time involved and the cost – both directly in terms of airfares and accommodation, but also indirectly through staff time spent setting up programmes and events – would be far greater.

It’s not just about form.  On substance too, New Zealand interests were very effectively advanced.

In Bali, the Prime Minister chaired a meeting of leaders involved in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiation.  That happened because US President Barack Obama stayed home to deal with major budget issues.  It put New Zealand in the spotlight as negotiators work round the clock to close the deal.  The Prime Minister was able to push hard from the chair for the completion of a high quality deal on time.

At both summits, the Prime Minister pushed our candidature for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2015-16.

Discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali and Premier Li Keqiang in Brunei provided an opportunity to take forward a range of interests with the two top Chinese leaders and many of their Cabinet colleagues.  The discussions dovetailed nicely, demonstrating sincerity and consistency on our part, and a high degree of awareness and appreciation for the way in which the relationship is developing from the Chinese leadership.

With ASEAN leaders, the Prime Minister looked forward to our 2015 commemorative summit to celebrate 40 years of partnership.  He received clear messages about the value the ASEAN countries attached to the relationship, particularly in areas like aid, education, disaster management support and agriculture development.  That will help set up further conversations at officials level about the summit and the plan of action beyond it.

In Brunei there was an opportunity to meet with members of the New Zealand community and some Bruneians with strong New Zealand connections.  That turned into a Q and A session where people quizzed the Prime Minister on things that mattered to them.   I know it means a lot to kiwis living in out of the way places to have a chance to engage directly with a politician or an official from home.

While I’ve focused here on Mr Key’s engagement, the same holds true for the part that Foreign Minister McCully and Trade Minister Groser played in discussions in Bali.

Mr McCully was only at the event for a day, but on top of the formal meetings, he had more than two hours of conversations over dinner with his counterparts from the United States, Japan, Korea, Canada and Indonesia seated at a small round table.  Worth the price of admission alone, as the conversation traversed a wide range of subjects in which New Zealand has an interest.

Mr Groser was deeply involved in a series of meetings about the TPP that helped take that agenda forward, as well as having bilateral meetings with a range of counterparts and participating in APEC events.  He also spoke to an informed business audience about free trade processes in the region.

Through the high level presence we had at these meetings, and the substance discussed, New Zealand was able to project itself as an engaged and active member of the regional community.   We absolutely have to do this.  No one owes us anything on the wider regional stage.  What we achieve is through careful and targeted engagement.

So to sum up:  our leaders got great access, they pushed our trade agenda, advanced the United Nations Security Council campaign and followed up on many other interests that count for New Zealand and New Zealanders.

They also supported the final packages of outcomes from the APEC and East Asia Summit meetings that have been developed over the past year.   That’s perhaps another story.

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