Jacinda Ardern already knows what she’d say to Vladimir Putin, or any of his representatives, if they cross her path in South-East Asia

The Prime Minister sets off this weekend for her final international mission of the year after a jam-packed globe-trotting schedule to make up for two-and-a-half years lost to closed borders.

Since her first post-covid venture in April to Singapore and Japan, the Prime Minister has clocked up visits to Australia, Fiji, England, Spain, Brussels, the United States, and Antarctica – in the case of Australia, London, and the US she’s visited more than once.

As Christmas draws closer and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, Ardern is heading to the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Cambodia and APEC in Bangkok.

In the days between those two meetings, she will lead a trade delegation to Vietnam.

Russia is a member of both summits, as well as the G20, which is being held in Bali while Ardern is in Vietnam.

But President Vladimir Putin is yet to confirm whether he will attend the two Ardern is going to. He has withdrawn from the G20, according to the Russian Embassy in Indonesia.

Whether Putin himself shows up or not, Ardern is in no doubt that he will be represented in some form, as was the case at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September.

Ardern will not hold bilateral talks with Russia while in Southeast Asia, given New Zealand has taken a clear position not to engage diplomatically in that way while the invasion of Ukraine continues.

“However, can you prevent passing someone in a hallway or seeing someone in a meeting room? No, you can’t prevent that entirely and if the opportunity ever arose where I were face-to-face with anyone in the Russian leadership, I would say exactly privately what I say publicly – the war is illegal and must end for the good of all of us.”

“I would be gone for a continuous long period; I would not be chairing Cabinet through those periods. I’m very mindful of the length of time I spend out of New Zealand.” – Jacinda Ardern

Ardern says she wouldn’t walk out on any meeting or forum where Russia is speaking over the course of the next week.

Having spoken “unequivocally on NZ’s position on the war in Ukraine’’ at the UN meeting, Ardern says Russia is well aware of the view New Zealand holds.

“My view is that in these summits I expect them to stay at the table as we share our views and so I intend to stay at the table as I hear others too.”

Ardern isn’t expecting much consensus over the next week, despite the fact the forums celebrate being consensus-driven instead of confrontation.

“In these times it may make it more difficult to reach consensus on some issues. Of course, Russia being at the table in these summits may be one reason for that, but not the only one,” she said.

Climate action won’t be ignored

When Ardern first announced her travel to Southeast Asia, she acknowledged it would mean missing COP27 in Egypt, because they clashed.

Leaders’ week at COP has just finished, raising questions about why Ardern couldn’t have gone from Egypt straight to Phnom Penh in time for the beginning of the EAS.

In response to questions from Newsroom, Ardern confirmed it wasn’t so much about a clash, but that it would have meant she was away from New Zealand for two weeks and unable to chair Cabinet.

“I would be gone for a continuous long period; I would not be chairing Cabinet through those periods. I’m very mindful of the length of time I spend out of New Zealand.

“There would have been some logistical challenges as well,” she said.

Ardern isn’t the only one facing questions about what summits she chooses to attend.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is also absent from the COP.

The first question posed to the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum in a joint press conference in Egypt with Australia’s ministerial representative, Pat Conroy, was whether he was “disappointed” Albanese wasn’t there.

Like Ardern, Albanese has also been out of the country a lot since being elected, attending summits and international visits, including Kyiv, as well as the Queen’s funeral in London followed by the memorial service of Japan’s former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

While COP is where the bulk of this year’s global climate talk will take place, Ardern says that doesn’t stop her from making it a feature of her conversations while in Southeast Asia.

“In fact, for me one of the areas where in the last five years we’ve seen a step change in the [climate] focus, but still a lot of work to be done, it has been our region.

“I’d like to think New Zealand has been one of the reasons that we’ve seen a bit of a shift, particularly when we had the opportunity to chair APEC.”

And while Ardern may well point to her Government’s work programme on climate action as an example of how other countries in the region and beyond can do better, it might fall on deaf ears more than usual.

That’s because the world is increasingly turning more protectionist and looking inward as a global recession threatens.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson noted this shift was already underway when he met counterparts at the annual International Monetary Fund (IMF) gathering in the US capital last month.

He warned the threat of a global recession, high inflation, and the impacts of the war in Ukraine were tipping world leaders toward more protectionist behaviour.

Given the Government’s latest plan to price agricultural emissions, it begs the question as to whether many countries are bothered about the climate credentials of trading partners when so-called “food sovereignty” is increasing.

Ardern said that approach wasn’t “universal”, but she wasn’t willing to name names for who is taking a more protectionist approach.

“As we see food prices rise, as we see issues – in some cases a knock-on effect from the war in Ukraine – some leaders are calling for what is essentially greater forms of protectionism. So, either walking away from existing trade arrangements or seeking not to engage in future trade dialogues.

“New Zealand has a longstanding and principled position that actually solving the world’s global food shortages will be achieved by making sure we trade with each other on fair terms and fair access.

“There are some who ideologically disagree with that,” Ardern said.

“In some cases that will mean dialogue around future opportunities may be stalling but that doesn’t mean we should stall our work.”

The superpowers

The last time Ardern and China’s President Xi Jinping spoke was by phone in the lead-up to New Zealand chairing APEC at the end of last year.

Ardern is hopeful a formal meeting with Xi will take place at APEC, and she says her message will be no different to other conversations.

“New Zealand is utterly consistent; my messages will frankly be the same now as they were then.

“We’ll be reflecting on the areas of strength and where we cooperate well, often those are in the trade space, increasingly we’re seeking to work together in the climate and biodiversity space,” she said.

“Then there are areas of difference on issues like human rights…and of course what we see as ongoing strategic competition in our region.”

Ardern isn’t prioritising a meeting with US President Joe Biden at EAS because of the long catch-up they had when she visited the White House in May.

Vice-President Kamala Harris will represent the US at APEC, due to a scheduling clash that means Biden can’t attend, although he will be at the G20 in Bali.

Ardern expects to see Biden, in passing, “on the margins” but her focus for bilateral meetings is with leaders she hasn’t met before or has spent little time with.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

Leave a comment