A Buddhist monk walks past a banner welcoming the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders ahead of the 35th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok, Thailand.

The cancellation of the APEC summit in Chile has now thrown the spotlight on the East Asia summit in Bangkok on Monday.

The Prime Minister is flying up on Sunday for what was originally expected to be a meeting focused on regional security issues.

Now it will take on a bigger, more global context.

Though there are signs promoting the summit  power poles in parts of Bangkok and a few flags on some of the bridges;  by East Asian standards, Bangkok has laid out a low-key welcome to the host of leaders who are descending on the city.

Once again, the meeting will be a test of New Zealand’s independent foreign policy and whether it can stand up to the competing tensions of the United States and Australia on the one hand, and China on the other.

While most of the participants are also members of APEC, some big names will be absent.

President Xi Jinping, President Trump and President Putin will not be there.

Instead, Xi will be represented by Premier Li Keqiang; and Putin by Premier Dmitry Medvedev.

Trump is expected to be represented by his National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien.

Many Asian nations will interpret this as further evidence of the US downgrading of its relationship with East Asia; a situation which China has been so far only too happy to exploit.


But there will be other heavyweights there including India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe.

Trump had promised that he would discuss the US-China trade standoff with Xi in Santiago; now, the question is whether Li and O’Brien can make any headway on their own.

There are other issues on the table, most notably the South China Sea, Myanmar and North Korea.

New Zealand officials place a lot of weight on the East Asia summit because they believe it allows New Zealand a seat at a table with some big players and amplifies its voice.

However, its voice on the South China Sea is to stay scrupulously neutral.

The South China Sea will undoubtedly be a focus of a meeting of the Association of South-East Asian Nations  (ASEAN) on Saturday and then a summit with Premier Li on Sunday.

ASEAN is trying to develop a  Code of Conduct that China will accept to govern shipping activities in the South China Sea.

But it has been challenging to get agreement within ASEAN which works on consensus which means, effectively, that any one nation can veto anything.

China, on the other hand. Is reluctant to join a Code which would be binding upon it.

New Zealand is part of a group of dialogue partners of ASEAN who meet with them after their own summit and their summits with China, India, the UN, the US, Japan and South Korea have taken place.

New Zealand’s position on the South China Sea has veered under the Ardern Government.

The  Strategic Defence Policy Statement of July last year says China has expanded its military and coastguard presence in disputed areas of maritime Asia.

“It has determined not to engage with an international tribunal ruling on the status of sovereignty claims.

“ The ASEAN Code of Conduct represents an opportunity for constructive multilateral management of disputes, while unilateral actions by any claimant escalate tensions and raise the risks of miscalculation in the region.

“Where China has acted to advance its sovereignty claims, it has generally demonstrated a preference for bilateral engagement over existing regional architecture.”

China objected to being singled out in the document, and the comments are believed to have been behind a temporary chilling of relaitons at the beginning of this year which was resolved with the Prime Minister’s trip to Beijing in April.

Subsequent defence statements such as last week’s on the Pacific have not referred to China by name, and the relationship is now notably warmer with China refraining from criticising New Zealand. 

Though writing in “Incline”, a journal published by Victoria University’s Centre for Strategic Studies, the Centre’s Robert Ayson argues that Defence may have toned down its language but not necessarily its beliefs.

“In their foreword, Chief of Defence Force Kevin Short and newly appointed Defence Secretary Andrew Bridgman explain that together with other government agencies, our Pacific partners, and like-minded partners, New Zealand Defence aims to contribute to the maintenance of our collective values and interests, including open access, freedom of movement, and transparency,” he writes.

”This reads as if the South Pacific is connected by a hitherto undiscovered umbilical cord to the South China Sea.”

But New Zealand’s concerns about China in the Pacific are expressed more subtly than those of Australia which takes a more confrontational attitude towards Beijing..

Only this week the Chinese lodged a protest with the Australians over remarks made by Foreign Minister Marise Payne about Xianjing.

“We have repeatedly stated that a sound and stable China-Australia relationship serves the fundamental interests of both peoples,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.

“ We hope the Australian side will reflect upon and learn from recent setbacks in our relations and meet China halfway rather than take one step forward and two steps backward.”

But this leaves New Zealand having to tread warily around Australia.

Officials say New Zealand’s policy has not changed since the National Government; that New Zealand does not pick sides but that it supports the Code of Conduct.

This also requires delicate footwork because two of the ASEAN members more critical of CVhina, Malaysia and Thailand are longtime close friends of New Zealand.

Ardern will have to tread carefully through this maze, particularly as she is considering a high profile visit to Beijing early next year.

Ardern will not be on her own in Bangkok.

Minister for Trade and Export Growth, Damien O’Connor, will be in Bangkok today for a meeting of Ministers from the 16 countries involved I negotiating a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Leaders will meet on Monday to consider progress, and it is expected they will sign an “in principle” agreement, but the reality is the fine print is far from settled.

For New Zealand, the attraction of the agreement is that it brings India into New Zealand’s web of free trade agreements but whether India will agree to relax restrictions on dairy exports is another matter.

It’s “highly likely” the RCEP deal will be agreed to in Bangkok even if the agreement is not completely finalised, according to Mr Juan Sebastian Cortes-Sanchez, a senior trade policy analyst at the Asian Trade Centre research group in Singapore.

“I don’t think we can expect a complete, crisp agreement, with all the tariff schedules and information, and all the chapters completed,” he said. “But we would expect them to sign something so that they can move forward with it.”

What this summit will underline is both the dominant influence of China in the East Asian region and also the declining influence of the United States.

The net effects of this will be to increasingly force participants to find their own solutions to regional challenges such as the situation in North Korea and the Rohinga crisis in Myanmar.

In a way,  given New Zealand’s independent foreign policy, that will bring the country closer to the region.