Winston Peters’ Washington visit is a chance to push for improved trade access and an exemption from tariffs – but the US may have some “asks” of its own regarding China, Sam Sachdeva writes.

Winning concessions on trade from the self-proclaimed “Tariff Man” Donald Trump seems an unenviable task – but Winston Peters appears up for the challenge.

The Foreign Affairs Minister heads to Washington this week for a week-long schedule including meetings with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and put economic issues at the forefront when speaking to media about his goals.

“It’s to ensure that we have a clear understanding with the US as to what we need in our part of the world and what we hope to get from them, including a better trading position than we currently have got,” Peters said.

It is an understandable focus given the Government’s ongoing struggle to secure a free trade deal or win an exemption from steel and aluminium tariffs, although whether Peters has any more luck on the latter front than Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker did on a recent trip remains to be seen.

One factor the Government may hope counts in its favour is the recent GCSB decision to bar Huawei from a role in the rollout of 5G in New Zealand.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and other ministers have been insistent that lobbying from foreign governments played no role in the decision – but it is undeniable that our partners in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (including the US) were watching Wellington’s decision with great interest, given the perception amongst some critics that we have been “soft” on China.

The Huawei decision has clearly been on the radar of US officials, as has the research into China’s influence efforts conducted by New Zealand academic Anne-Marie Brady – during a visit to New Zealand this week, the Pentagon’s top Asia policy official mentioned his knowledge of and respect for Brady’s work.

Randall Schriver, the US assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, says the debate over China’s role in the Pacific isn’t about siding with one superpower. Photo: Ola Thorsen/US Embassy.

Speaking to media in Wellington, Randall Schriver, the US assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, insisted countries would not have to “choose” between it or China.

“China is a reality in this region, its size, its economic strength, its increasing military activity…there’s no one who can wish that away.”

However, his framing of America’s “free and open” Indo-Pacific against Beijing’s debt trap diplomacy seemed to no doubt as to which side we should fall on, as did his criticism of China’s failure to follow international norms.

Of course, the Trump administration’s hands are not entirely in the latter respect – perhaps one reason why the US-China battle is in some aspects a race to the bottom, at least in terms of public perception.

According to a recently released Gallup poll, only 30 percent of New Zealanders approve of China’s leadership – a figure nevertheless higher than the 19 percent approval rating for US leadership, a gap that has opened up in Beijing’s favour for the first time in nearly a decade following the election of Trump.

The polling took place before concerns about possible Chinese interference in New Zealand heated up, but while China’s rating may have fallen, it’s unlikely the US would have risen much given Trump’s ongoing travails.

South China Sea, Huawei among potential flashpoints

But winning the favour of Kiwis matters little when there are larger principles at stake, and potential flashpoints abound.

A Chinese general this week suggested using military force to repel the US Navy from carrying out freedom of navigations in the South China Sea’s disputed territories, while the arrest of a Huawei executive over alleged sanctions breaches has also raised tensions.

The arrest of Meng Wanzhou in Canada came at the request of the US, and highlights a potential nightmare scenario for the Government here to receive a similar request.

That may not transpire, but New Zealand’s proximity to and knowledge of the Pacific – a region where China’s spending on aid and infrastructure has created anxiety among Western nations – is likely to be leveraged by the US.

Schriver acknowledged as much, saying that the US tended to “lean heavily on friends in New Zealand” when it came to Pacific expertise.

Peters was quick to assert that he did not expect China to dominate his conversations in Washington.

That may be so, but given the ongoing battle for supremacy, it seems likely it will never be far from the topic of discussion.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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