Within days of New Zealand rejecting Chinese involvement in the new 5G mobile phone network, President Trump’s Washington is preparing to welcome Foreign Minister Winston Peters.
Peters will be the most high-level New Zealand visitor to Washington since President Trump took power last year.
In a brief text message, he told POLITIK that his schedule was not yet finalised.
But sources say he is hoping to meet Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor, John Bolton.
And there is a possibility he may meet Vice President Mike Pence.
This will be the first high-level formal bilateral contact between the Trump administration and the Ardern government.
However Peters did meet Pompeo at the East Asian Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Singapore in August.
And he travelled to Beijing in May to meet China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi.
The Washington trip looks to be happening around the weekend of December 15 – 16.
There are some administrative problems most notably the fact that New Zealand technically does not have an ambassador in Washington at present.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is understood to be trying to hasten up the presentation of credentials of the new ambassador, Rosemary Banks, so that she can accompany Peters on his meetings.
The decision for Peters to go now means it comes immediately after New Zealand’s electronic spy agency, the GCSB, issued a declaration that it could not approve Huawei equipment for the country’s new 5G mobile phone network.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, at her weekly post-Cabinet press conference, was at pains to stress the formal process that the Huawei proposal had been subjected to.
“We have to make decisions by due process and in the best interests of New Zealanders; their privacy and their data,” she said.
“The legislation that we have around capability and security is designed to deliver just that on behalf of New Zealanders.
“It is a regulatory process, and it means that regardless of the vendor that makes an application, the GCSB goes through a process, makes an assessment and gives their initial findings to the operator and then they are given an opportunity to mitigate against those findings.
“That is the process we are still in the middle of so that process has not been completed.”
Peters has been at pains to say this is not a ban; but one Minister told POLITIK that no it wasn’t (strictly speaking) a ban — we had just told Huawei we wouldn’t be buying their equipment, he said.
Nevertheless, with both Ardern and Peters now stressing the opportunity for Huawei to mitigate the problems causing security concerns, New Zealand appears to have moved closer to the United Kingdom position which also allows for mitigation rather than the outright bans imposed in the US and Australia.
Whether Huawei can mitigate the problems and what the economic impact of that mitigation might remain to be seen.
There are worries within the Cabinet that the Chinese could react as they did in 2016 when Beijing reacted against a New Zealand investigation of allegations that China was dumping steel in New Zealand.
They threatened “retaliatory measures” against New Zealand trade if a steel dumping inquiry went ahead, slowing the flow of dairy, wool and kiwifruit imports.
The Chinese believed New Zealand was part of a US-led alliance to target Chinese national interests, with representatives of our biggest export industries called in by Chinese officials and told to exert their influence to make sure the MBIE investigation did not go ahead.
So far the Chinese reaction over Huawei has been muted.
There are suggestions that New Zealand might seek to mollify the Chinese by continuing to support its Belt and Road initiative which is not only a personal project of President Xi Jinping but which has drawn little support so far from other western countries.
The Prime Minister was trading very carefully on the questions of relations with China at her press conference yesterday frequently referring to New Zealand’s “independent foreign policy”.
In her agenda-setting foreign policy speech to the Institute of International Affairs in February she didn’t once refer to an “independent foreign policy”.
So this appears to be an evolution which has been appearing in her comments on foreign policy in recent weeks.
All of this points to the delicate balance that is New Zealand foreign policy and Ardern addressed that too yesterday.
“We absolutely maintain an independent foreign policy,” she said.
“I think you will hear me ad nauseam repeat that.
“New Zealand, I think, can take great pride in the fact that we do take an approach that is based on our national interest; that is based on our independence and regardless of who we are dealing with that is the way that New Zealand historically has positioned itself and will continue to do so.”
Obviously, those words were intended to be heard in Beijing – but also, in Washington, and they may also have been intended to serve as a reminder to the Foreign Minister of exactly what the Government’s foreign policy is.