Rising geopolitical tensions in the Asia-Pacific region threaten to overshadow this week’s East Asia Summit and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings. New Zealand has a crucial part to play is raising bread and butter issues affecting citizens across the region, and championing the rules-based system. Laura Walters reports.

Growing military anxiety over the South China Sea, the US-China trade war, concerns about Pacific nations’ rising debt to China, and the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula will all be top of mind when leaders from the Asia-Pacific meet in Singapore and then Papua New Guinea later this week.

While there is a raft of important geopolitical issues needing to be hashed out in bilaterals and the corridors of EAS and APEC – where the value is really added – there will be one big elephant in every room: the US-China relationship.

The relationship between the competing superpowers continues to rise towards fever pitch, as the two battle for influence in the wider Asia-Pacific region.

US President Donald Trump will not attend this year’s summits, instead sending Vice President Mike Pence. China will send Premier Li Keqiang to EAS, with President Xi Jinping focusing his attention on APEC – particularly the Pacific component – in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

If the mix of big personalities wasn’t already enough, add Russian President Vladimir Putin, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi. And of course, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern will also be there with Foreign Minister Winston Peters, and her delegation.

US in the spotlight

EAS is expected to have a strong US bent, with Pence essentially throwing down the gauntlet last month in a speech to US think-tank the Hudson Institute, where he accused Beijing of employing “a whole-of-government approach, using political, economic, and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States”.

In his speech, which continued to build on Trump’s America First rhetoric, Pence said America would “act decisively” to protect its interests against China’s “malign strategy”, both at home and with its increased military powers in what the US now refers to as the “Indo-Pacific region”.

The US will also use EAS to unveil its new Indo-Pacific strategy, which Pence touted as supporting a free and open region, showing “America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific has never been stronger”.

International relations and security experts says these superpower issues risk sidelining smaller economies, undermining the existing regional architecture, and overshadowing other important issues on the agenda.

New Zealand’s role

But some believe New Zealand is in a prime position to make sure issues that affect everyday people are not sidelined by the flexing of superpower muscles.

Professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar, Asia foreign policy expert and former advisor to the vice president of Indonesia, said New Zealand had a part to play in championing the rules-based system, and the importance of regional architecture like ASEAN, EAS and APEC.

“The most important thing is, with these concerns about great powers overtaking the events and dominating the agenda, middle powers need to push themselves forward more,” she said.

“This is where ASEAN and the middle powers grouped in the EAS should insist continuously, even at the point of being shrill, that we need to abide by international laws and we need to develop a regional code of conduct, that even though there is no enforcement mechanism, we need to respect it.”

This issue is top-of-mind for Ardern, as she plans to yet again champion the rules-based order.

“New Zealand has benefited greatly from taking collaborative approaches to both security and trade issues. We will continue to support the international rules and systems that protect and support this because it contributes to our prosperity and security,” she said

“At both meetings I will be emphasising to other leaders in the region that now, more than ever, we should be working collectively to address the global and regional challenges we face.”

Anwar, who is currently in New Zealand as the 2018 Sir Howard Kippenberger Visiting Professor in Strategic Studies, said New Zealand was also well-placed to look at the agenda more broadly.

Ardern did not seem concerned about the rising tensions between the superpowers overshadowing other issues.

Speaking on Monday, ahead of flying to Singapore on Tuesday, she said dominant themes always emerged, which were repeated, but New Zealand’s representation would be “utterly consistent”.

This would be another opportunity for Ardern to highlight New Zealand’s belief in the importance of multilateralism, maintinaing a rules-based order, and inclusive trade for all. It would essentially be an opportunity to reaffirm New Zealand’s position.

Growing tensions

Geopolitical tensions between China and the United States are nothing new, but they continue to rise.

Disputes in the South China Sea are ongoing, and just last month a Chinese warship passed close to the United States destroyer USS Decatur. This has led to the US calling on China to return to maritime codes of conduct. During a visit to the Pacific region – including New Zealand, earlier this month, US Navy Admiral John Richardson said these types of miscalculations at sea, could easily flare up into something more.

This concern was shared by Anwar, who said small incidents could turn into conflicts.

Asia-Pacific countries did not want to be put in a position of being torn by competing major powers, when they pursued their major power rivalry, she said.

“Clearly we do not want to be a theatre used for proxy conflict.”

Therefore, even if issues as complex as the South China Sea could not be resolved, regional forums like ASEAN, EAS and APEC, could be used to manage these problems.

EAS would also give Ardern a chance to conduct her first face-to-face meeting with new Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison. While some of the topics raised would be positive, the agenda would look similar to Ardern’s meetings with previous prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, with issues including New Zealand citizens’ rights in Australia and the deportation of Kiwis.

Other perennial issues expected to be raised at EAS were climate change, North Korea, terrorism, the return of foreign fighters, growing protectionism in the region, energy security, the persecution of the Rohingya, and of course free and inclusive trade.

While all these topics could not be covered in official meetings, leaders had the flexibility to raise what was on their minds during bilaterals, or when the bumped into other leaders in the corridors, or siderooms.

Experts say this is where a lot of the meaty discussions happen, and sometimes just flagging an issue in an international forum – when the world’s watching – can have a big impact.

More of the same at APEC

When Ardern moves onto APEC on Saturday, following four days in Singapore, there will be no escape from the China-US relationship, with the trade war likely to remain the elephant in the room.

Anwar said it was important to address the big issues head-on – “You can’t sweep an elephant under the rug”.

This is something Trade Minister David Parker agrees with, saying New Zealand has always been a supporter of open and robust discussion.

Again, this will give New Zealand the opportunity to talk about the importance of free, open and inclusive trade.

APEC’s theme of inclusive trade fits nicely with New Zealand’s ‘trade for all’ policy, and dovetails with developing digital economies and women’s economic empowerment in the Asia-Pacific region. Hopefully these bread and butter issues, which affect the lives of citizens in APEC economies, don’t get lost in the noise made by a few big players.

Ardern leaves New Zealand for Singapore on Tuesday, then on to Papua New Guinea on Saturday. Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker will attend the APEC Ministers’ Meeting in Port Moresby on November 15. Minister of State for Trade and Export Growth Damien O’Connor will attend the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) ministerial meeting in Singapore 12-13 November. The Prime Minister will return to New Zealand on November 19.

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