The visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry has been a last chance for New Zealand to talk over a series of big issues with the Obama administration while everyone here waits with a sense of trepidation over what the Trump administration might mean.
But POLITIK understands that Kerry cautioned the New Zealand politicians and officials not to jump to conclusions and box Trump into a corner.
At this stage, there were too many unknowns, he said.
Otherwise, it was business as if the election had not happened.
The TPP, the South China Sea , climate change and New Zealand’s role on the Security Council were all discussed at Premier House in Wellington yesterday morning when Kerry met with Prime Minister John Key and Foreign Minister Murray McCully.
The talks took place against the background of the general improvement in relations that has taken place between the two countries since Obama became President and which is about to be symbolised this week by the visit of the USS Sampson – the first US warship to come here since the USS Texas in 1983.
Ironically Kerry himself came to Wellington in 1968 as a young Ensign on the guided missile frigate, USS Gridley.
Both Key and Kerry enthused about the state of the relationship.
Key said it was in its best shape for decades while Kerry said “we could not be more excited and gratified about the tremendous relationship we have with New Zealand.
“I think it is as good as it has ever been.”
And it appears the two countries are doing more than simply healing the wounds of the past — in particular, they are working together at the UN Security Council on Middle Eastern peace issues.
However, there are areas where there are differences; most notably on the Chinese government’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Kerry said New Zealand and the United States had been a “partner” on the South China Sea.
But Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, speaking after yesterday’s meeting said New Zealand and the United States were not aligned on “every detail” over the South China Sea.
“We say that international law, specifically the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea should be the foundation for resolving these issues.”
The United States is not a signatory to the Law of the Sea Convention.
McCully said that over recent months he had spent “a lot of time’ talking with US representatives about the South China Sea.
And in a roundabout way, he seemed to suggest that New Zealand did not go along with some of the aggressive statements and military actions that the US has undertaken to try and discourage China from pressing its claims.
“There are some differences regarding the style of the engagement that comes to this issue.
“The US is the world’s only superpower dealing with an emerging power.
“We have a completely asymmetrical relationship with China.
“We have our own ways of communicating with them, so there are some differences of style.”
Asked if the obvious failure of the Trans Pacific Partnership meant that the US ran the risk of handing over dominance in East Asia to China, Kerry said that the TPP was never envisioned nor was it envisioned today to be about China.
“It’s about our economies.” he said.
“It’s about our people.
“It’s about prosperity. “
But in October last year at the time of the final agreement in Atlanta on the TPP, President Obama said: “We can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy. We should write those rules.”
However yesterday Obama’s Secretary of State was arguing that there was no contest with China.
“The United States welcomes the peaceful rise of a great nation like China,” he said.
“ We’ve said that directly to President Xi and to the Chinese.
“And we’re not looking for competition or conflict; we’re looking for cooperation.”
Meanwhile back in Washington both Senate leaders have now put paid to New Zealand hopes that the TPP might pass through the US Congress during the lame duck session before President Trump is inaugurated.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (Democrat) have said no to bringing the TPP to a vote in the lame-duck session, despite the strong support of many senators in both parties for freer trade.
In the House, Rep. Kevin Brady (Republican), the chairman of the committee that oversees trade, said in a statement on Wednesday that “this important agreement is not ready to be considered during the lame duck and will remain on hold until President Trump decides the path forward.”
Even so, Kerry thought there were some grounds for optimism.
“I think that we have to wait and see where we wind up on this debate as the new administration comes in next year.
“As people examine it and begin to get beyond the campaign and begin to dig into it, my hope is that it can summon the support that it needs.
“And if not, immediately that there are tweaks here and there and things that could be done to address some of the concerns that people have.”
Kerry had flown back to New Zealand on Saturday from a quick trip to Antarctica where he had been impressed by the work New Zealand scientists were doing on the potential breakup of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
“So I saw the whole West Antarctic ice sheet as I took a helicopter ride, and that ice sheet alone – just the West Antarctic ice sheet – should it break up and melt as it is showing signs of doing now, would add some 12 feet or more to the current sea level.
“And a significant portion of that could, in fact, happen during this century.
“That is an unacceptable reality to imagine.”
Kerry is en route now to Marrakech for the United Nations Climate Change Convention conference, but again, back home, the election of Trump poses a threat to the Paris Agreement of last year.
Trump says he will pull out of the agreement.
if he did the agreement would remain in place.
It is legally binding as long as 55 countries representing at least 55% of global emissions ratify it.
Already, 103 countries representing 73.38% of global emissions have ratified.
Removing the US’s 17.89% would make a major dent, but the 55% threshold for ratification would still be met.
Also travelling to the Middle East this week is McCully. He will go to Jordan, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories and to attend the Sir Bani Yas Forum in Abu Dhabi.
Hosted annually by the United Arab Emirates, the Forum is a leading venue for discussing peace and security issues in the Middle East.
And he told journalists after the meetings yesterday that his trip coincides with a revival in interest in New Zealand’s Security Council initiative to try and get a resolution acknowledging the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.
A previous attempt by McCully was apparently blocked by the US but now, he says, there is a possibility that the US will initiate something.
“There has been more recent word that the Palestinian leadership has asked the Arab group to advance something through the Arab group representative on the Council, Egypt,” he said.
“We are engaged in discussion on these matters.
“I’ll be talking to most of the key foreign ministers this week so it’s a conversation we are engaged in deeply and we spent some time talking to Secretary Kerry about where we might go on this.”
There are difficulties particularly getting agreement from the Arab group that this might be a way forward.
In September United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for intensified efforts to encourage Israelis and Palestinians to “ change the current destructive trajectory of the conflict, which is heading towards a “one-state reality” rather than a peaceful resolution.”
“Unfortunately, we are further than ever from its goals. The two-state solution is at risk of being replaced by a one-state reality of perpetual violence and occupation,” he warned.
“The decades-long policy that has settled more than 500,000 Israelis in Palestinian territory is diametrically opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state,” he said.
“Let me be absolutely clear: settlements are illegal under international law. The occupation, stifling and oppressive, must end,” he said.
McCully agreed with Ban Ki Moon saying that it was clear that the two-state solution was under serious threat.
“Some form of reassertion of that principle is called for,” he said.
But while it is on the Security Council, New Zealand has another interest in the Middle East.
It is one of the “pen holders” (with Egypt and Spain) on humanitarian issues in Syria.
McCully said he had a good discussion with Kerry about Syria and it came on top of other “good discussions” he had been having about the issue.
One of those was with British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson about getting a resolution before the Council calling for a cease-fire in Aleppo which Russia could support.
McCully said a previous French resolution in October was too provocative which was why Russia vetoed it.
“We think that something that has less inflammatory language will put more pressure on Russia,” he said.
He said that a draft resolution which New Zealand “pushed around” after the French resolution failed had not had a good reception.
“But since then we have been working with Spain and Egypt on what we have called a humanitarian resolution on Syria, but it actually has all of those other ingredients as well dealing with the need for a cease-fire; the need for humanitarian assistance and the need for the political track to be resumed.”
McCully said that the various Missions in New York had been talking about this over the past week and he expected that within the next week or two he would know whether it could go forward.
McCully will go to New York to the Security Council within the next few weeks as New Zealand’s two-year term comes to an end.
In a way, therefore, Kerry’s visit marked the end of an era, first of the Obama administration which has clearly improved the US relationship with New Zealand and secondly of New Zealand’s time at the centre of world politics.
Next year is likely to be defined by uncertainty and possibly challenges on both fronts.