The Prime Minister heads to Singapore and Japan next week – her first international trip in more than two years. Leaving New Zealand’s shores will almost be as significant as where she flies to, writes political editor Jo Moir.

When Jacinda Ardern jets out to Singapore on Easter Monday it will be 779 days since she was last abroad.

It was February 28, 2020, when Ardern flew back from Sydney after meeting with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. It was there she announced New Zealand had its first confirmed case of Covid-19.

It turned out to be the last time she, and many other New Zealanders, would cross the borders and a long time before many living overseas could return home again.

So much time has passed, Ardern’s passport had expired.

Except for a canned visit to Australia in July last year and a derailed trade trip to Europe in November there hasn’t been much of an attempt by the Prime Minister to undertake international meetings.

That’s because of what was going on domestically.

“There’s a number of things that have been in play determining when to travel; we’ve had some points in New Zealand’s navigation of the pandemic where it just wouldn’t have been right to be anywhere else but here leading that response,’’ she said.

Instead, her trade and foreign ministers have attended summits and engagements at a ministerial level, while Ardern has been bogged down with domestic issues and the response to Covid at home.

“The CPTPP is hugely important for New Zealand and Japan … ultimately that is where we want the US to be looking when it comes to their trade aspirations in our region.” – Jacinda Ardern

Ardern says she would have been prepared to do two weeks of managed isolation if she had headed abroad earlier, but often it was the restrictions, new waves and variants impacting overseas nations that put the halt on her visiting.

“I don’t think that has impacted any relationships negatively because Covid has still been affecting the world,’’ she said.

There are many hurdles to get over before the plane even takes off and many intending to travel, including the media and trade delegation, could still be left behind if pre-departure tests are positive.

While many of Ardern’s parliamentary and ministerial colleagues have now had Covid, she hasn’t yet. 

Ardern says that’s the way things are and while she’s taking every precaution to make sure the trip goes ahead, there’s still many obstacles along the way, including daily rapid antigen testing in Singapore and a PCR test before entering Tokyo.

The lack of face-to-face meetings with international counterparts, or “mask-to-mask’’ as it’s now become, hasn’t stopped relationships from growing.

Ardern says in some ways more candid and informal conversations have increased as leaders have found new ways to communicate from a distance.

Last year the Prime Minister outlined where she planned to travel in the coming year, with a focus on the European Union, United States and Australian markets.

A decision was made to head to Asia early on and while it was hoped Korea could be part of a visit, their elections mean the country is in a transition period.

China was also a prospective trip but the restrictions on travel there also put it in the too-hard basket for now.

Singapore and Japan are New Zealand’s fourth and fifth biggest trading markets and Ardern says reconnecting with political and business leaders there to develop trade and cultural relationships is hugely important, but so is letting them know Aotearoa is open for business.

Ardern takes her role as New Zealand’s most well-known ambassador seriously, and her programme is jam-packed with engagements to make sure she leaves having got “great bang for buck’’.

Promoting tourism will be a big focus on her travels and Ardern told Newsroom that means showcasing New Zealand’s rich Māori culture as well.

“One of the things that has struck me since being in this role is what an integral part Māori culture plays in the perspective our tourism markets have in New Zealand’.

“For me it’s naturally building on the expectation our tourism market already has,’’ she said.

“I remember in my last bilateral engagement in China it really standing out to me the fact in the leadership there it being raised as one of the more memorable parts about visiting New Zealand.

“This is already part of what attracts people to New Zealand,’’ she told Newsroom.

While Ardern is keen to tell people the borders are open here, she admits she hasn’t gone in and out of the border much herself since becoming prime minister, other than for work.

Except for one personal trip to Australia, she said she has kept it local, and doesn’t have any holidays planned in the future either.

“I just really haven’t tended to, maybe it’s an attachment issue, but I haven’t really felt like I could go too far so I haven’t,’’ she told Newsroom.

The next week will be anything but a holiday with a daily itinerary full of engagements and events from 7am till late.

“One of the things that has struck me since being in this role is what an integral part Māori culture plays in the perspective our tourism markets have in New Zealand’’. – Jacinda Ardern

Ardern expects China’s role in the Pacific and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will both be prominent in discussions with leaders.

“As a member of the Pacific it is a given when we enter into bilaterals there’s a conversation about the region and geopolitical issues.’’

She said China’s presence speaks to the Pacific being an “increasingly contested region’’ and she’s interested to hear her counterparts’ “unique positions, experiences and relationships’’.

The conflict in Ukraine will also be top of mind given “the whole world has been drawn into this conflict because of what it represents’’, Ardern said.

As for trade talks, the CPTPP and getting the United States on board will be a key discussion.

“The CPTPP is hugely important for New Zealand and Japan … ultimately that is where we want the US to be looking when it comes to their trade aspirations in our region,’’ she said.

While in Singapore Ardern will meet with both Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and President Halimah Yacob.

A New Zealand-hosted gala will be held where she will address Singapore entrepreneurs and business leaders.

In Japan the Prime Minister will, for the first time, meet her counterpart Fumio Kishida and address the Japan-New Zealand Business Council.

Trade Minister Damien O’Connor is travelling with Ardern and told Newsroom Singapore and Japan are both “crucial markets’’.

“Singapore is a hub. It was the first country that connected to us with the pandemic, it’s a lifeline for us in terms of our access to more technological imports that we don’t have more ready access to.

“We went to them for medical products, vaccines – all that was sourced through Singapore,’’ he said.

New Zealand has a long-standing relationship with Japan but it’s a market that “still has potential to grow’,’ O’Connor said.

“Whether it’s kiwifruit, less so dairy, we’ve got some really strong links into that market.

“And so, it’s important to go to those markets and reinforce those connections, to say thank you,’’ he said.

The Prime Minister and her delegation leave for Singapore and Japan on Monday and return on April 24.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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