Officials were working last night on drafting a Health Order which would allow Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison into the country on Sunday for a summit with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Otherwise, under a notice issued yesterday by the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, Morrison would have to self-isolate until he got a negative covid test.
So the summit will take place under the shadow of Covid but in the background will be an omnipresent issue — China.
Since the two leaders last met face to face in February last year the world’s strategic environment has changed.
One of New Zealand’s best United States foreign policy friends in the Biden administration, Kurt Campbell, yesterday said the era of engagement with China had come to an end; from now on the predominant paradigm would be competition.
But before Scott Morrison can talk to Jacinda Ardern about this, he first needs to get into New Zealand.
The Health Order being drafted is expected to allow a person (like Morrison) arriving from Australia who has a pre-departure negative test to be able to proceed straight through immigration as normal.
It is not clear whether Bloomfield knew that the way he drafted the notice meant that Morrison’s meeting with Ardern would be at best delayed, at worst cancelled.
Given that the Prime Minister’s office appears to be leading the drafting of the Order, it would seem not. The effort being put into enabling Morrison to come in is evidence of how much importance New Zealand is putting on this meeting.
But though officials may have found a work-around for Morrison, the Highlanders rugby team has not been so lucky.
Their Super Rugby game against the Melbourne Rebels was to have been played in Queenstown on Sunday afternoon in front of Morrison and Ardern.
Instead, the game will now be played in Sydney, which means that Morrison will probably arrive now late on Sunday afternoon rather than earlier in the day.
Ironically the meeting between the two Prime Ministers was being seen as an opportunity to show the world that Australia and New Zealand had Covid under such control that a normal face-to-face Prime Ministerial summit could take place.
And equally ironically, expanding the trans-Tasman travel bubble to third countries will be on the agenda.
The pair are expected to discuss this and the role that international vaccination certificates might play in any bubble extension.
QANTAS, Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines have all trialled the International Air Transport Association TravelPass App, which can contain details of a traveller’s vaccination and testing status.
Singapore is a likely candidate for an expansion of the trans-Tasman bubble.
But though Covid will form a topical background to the talks, the pair may actually find they don’t have all that much to talk about on other things.
That is because they keep in constant touch anyway. (Texting is apparently a favoured medium).
And New Zealand officials, including the Chief Executive of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Brook Barrington and the Secretary of Foreign Affairs Chris Seed, were in Canberra last week preparing the agenda and holding preliminary talks with their counterparts there.
In essence, the summit is “pre-baked.”
Even so not everything has gone quite as might have been expected.
New Zealand had been hoping for a lot of Australian TV shots showing off Queenstown as the country’s premier tourist location.
But the only outdoor event planned now the rugby has been cancelled will be laying a wreath in Arrowtown at a war memorial.
There is nothing to compare with the Lake Wakatipu cruise on the Earnslaw, which Jim Bolger took Paul Keating on in 1993.
Perhaps, though, the leaders after they laid the wreath, the leaders might have visited the Arrowtown Chinese Settlement and seen the restored huts that the Chinese gold diggers lived in during the gold rushes of the 129th century.
Over 400O of them came to Arrowtown, where they got a cold welcome.
“There is about as much distinction between a European and a Chinaman as that between a Chinaman and a monkey,” Premier Richard Seddon said.
A discriminatory poll tax was not abolished until 1944. It took until 2002 for the New Zealand government to formally apologise to the Chinese community.
Now it is Australia that has a cooler attitude to China.
The divergence between Australia and New Zealand on China is expected to come up in the talks on Monday but will also flow over into a discussion about regional security and the Pacific.
An indication of how things are changing came yesterday in a speech by President Biden’s National Security Council Co-Ordinator for the Indo-Pacific, the so-called “Asia Tsar”, Kurt Campbell.
Campbell is well known to New Zealand and, in 2014 was made an honorary Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to New Zealand – US relations.
He said the United States was entering a period of intense competition with China as the government running the world’s second-biggest economy became ever more tightly controlled by President Xi Jinping.
“The period that was broadly described as engagement has come to an end,” he said.
US policy towards China would now operate under a “new set of strategic parameters”, and the dominant paradigm is going to be competition”,
There would be little disagreement with that in Canberra.
And though the Australian Channel Nine current affairs show is running a promo for a programme on Sunday night arguing that “we” thought New Zealanders “were our best friends, but it looks like they’ve ditched us for a fast Chinese buck”, there have been signals from Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta that our relationship with China is cooling.
On Tuesday, Mahuta likened the growing trade war between Australia and China to being at the centre of a storm – one that could easily engulf New Zealand.
“We cannot ignore, obviously, what’s happening in Australia with their relationship with China. And if they are close to an eye of the storm or in the eye of the storm, we’ve got to legitimately ask ourselves – it may only be a matter of time before the storm gets closer to us,” she told the Guardian.
China’s response was surprisingly subdued.
On Wednesday, the Communist Party newspaper, Global Times, said that the robust exports of dairy products, wool and meat to New Zealand’s major trading partners “such as China” had underpinned its recovery.
It went on: “At a time when the original economic and trade pattern faces the possibility of restructuring against the backdrop of the pandemic-battered global economy, it is more essential than ever for countries to keep an open mindset, making more friends, maintaining traditional friendship, and creating new opportunities for cooperation.”
But the unstated message is clear; if New Zealand wants to maintain 29 per cent of its exports going to China, then the political relations between the two countries will matter.
Morrison is more likely to echo Kurt Campbell’s line of thinking.
That is the narrow line that Ardern must walk.
There is more likely to be an agreement between the trans-Tasman leaders on the Pacific where three issues will dominate the discussion.
They will want to talk about recent developments in Samoa where Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi has refused to cede power to Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, whose FAST Party won a one-seat majority in the election on April 9.
The leaders could focus more broadly on the future of democracy in the Pacific with elections later this year in Fiji and Tonga, both of which have experienced post-election violence in recent years.
They will also talk about the split in the South Pacific Forum where the five Micronesian member states (Nauru, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Palau) have decided to quit the organisation in response to the appointment of a Cook Islander as the new Secretary-General.
Both the question of democracy in the Pacific and the split in the Forum will be seen within the broader context of both Australia and New Zealand intensifying their foreign policy focus on the Pacific largely in response to China’s growing presence in the region.
Thus there will be two elephants in the room in Queenstown on Monday when the formal talks take place — Covid and then China.