After a long couple of weeks of will she/won’t she go to the White House, the Prime Minister has wrapped up a meeting that lasted 30 minutes longer than the one hour scheduled.
It’s the first time Jacinda Ardern has met face-to-face with President Biden where several issues, including gun reform, the war in Ukraine, and the Christchurch Call were discussed.
But it was the US’s new commitment to return to the Indo-Pacific region, and any potential trade or economic opportunities, that dominated the conversation.
Biden told media ahead of the meeting starting in the Oval Office that Ardern’s comment about “working together’’ was significant.
“We are not coming to dictate, or to lay down the law,’’ Biden said.
The rapport between the two was evident from the beginning when Ardern began her opening remarks with, “can I say Mr President” and he cut in to comment, “you can do anything you want’’.
Biden described New Zealand’s relationship with the US as being “one of our closest partners – we have a long history of friendship’’.
He and Ardern both reflected on family who had fought on the same side in the Pacific during World War II.
“The meeting length is probably a reflection of the many issues we wanted to traverse together, but I’m greatly heartened by the nature of the conversation we had today.” – Jacinda Ardern
Biden noted Ardern’s leadership on climate change, gun violence, extremism online and the resulting Christchurch Call.
He also took time to acknowledge the Texas elementary school shooting last week and spoke of his visit there just days ago and the “preventable devastation’’ he saw.
In her reply to the President, Ardern expressed her sincere condolences on behalf of New Zealand and extended an offer to share the country’s own experiences with Biden if it would add any value.
Both thanked each other both before the meeting and during for their respective support of Ukraine.
Ardern acknowledged the leadership Biden had shown at a time when values and territorial sovereignty are being challenged.
Biden also referred to New Zealand’s “significant support to the Ukraine’’.
While the US has committed to a greater presence in the Indo-Pacific region with an economic framework announced by Biden in Japan last week, Ardern pointed out the CPTPP was the trade instrument she would continue to “advocate” the US to join.
Speaking after the meeting to both the travelling New Zealand media and journalists from the White House, Ardern described the relationship as “warm, friendly, (and with) shared values and challenges’’.
“The meeting length is probably a reflection of the many issues we wanted to traverse together, but I’m greatly heartened by the nature of the conversation we had today,’’ she said.
On any commitment from Biden to be more present in the Pacific, Ardern said the US has been proactive about their intention to be in the region on the Pacific’s terms, and it wasn’t necessary for New Zealand to move closer to the US in light of China’s increasing presence.
“Obviously there’s no need. I think what’s already established is the close working relationship that New Zealand and the United States have, that we have shared values, and really importantly that the focus in our region is…furthering the Pacific values and the focus that Pacific Island leaders have determined for themselves.’’
Ardern described the Pacific region as being “increasingly contested and challenged’’ and said it wasn’t surprising that China came up as part of that conversation with the President.
“Our engagement in our region has to be on our terms respectively and not be in response to the engagement of anyone else, particularly if it’s going to be consistent,’’ she said.
“We are not coming to dictate, or to lay down the law.” – President Joe Biden
On gun reform, Ardern said when leaders experience face-to-face grief of a family member who has lost a loved one to a “crime like this’’ the experience is shared.
“Whilst we might have different circumstances, whilst there might be different legislative environments, that is something we have both seen and experienced, and it is horrific.’’
Asked by Newsroom what it meant to be at the White House and the significance of that as a leader, Ardern was diplomatic at first, before letting the stateswoman veneer crack and admitting she had a little political nerd moment while spending time in the Oval Office.
Ahead of her meeting with Biden, Ardern briefly met Vice-President Kamala Harris, a discussion which focused on two areas within Harris’ remit – space cooperation and the Christchurch Call.
Ardern said she and her business delegation had taken time to meet tech companies while in the US and that more work needed to be done.
“I hold an optimistic view that whilst things have been too slow, there’s an acknowledgement often that that has been the case by some, and we will continue to seek progress particularly on the transparency of some of these issues that are thought to, in some cases, potentially contribute to radicalisation.
“Issues around, for instance, the use of algorithms,’’ she said.
As expected, there were no tangible outcomes from the meeting with Biden, but Ardern did again raise the issue of tariffs on New Zealand steel and aluminium.
“This is one of those issues we have consistently raised, and I believe that will be something that will be looked into.’’
The White House visit concludes Ardern’s 10-day visit to the United States. She returns to NZ on a commercial flight, while the RNZAF plane that has transported the delegation is being repaired in Washington DC.