Jacinda Ardern's awkward end to East Asia summit despite trade success

The Prime Minister's final hours at the East Asia summit have finished with a rather awkward 18-person handshake.

On one side, Jacinda Ardern. And on the other, Philippines President Roderigo Duterte - who has been accused of thousands of extrajudicial killings.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more unlikely combination. Except for when Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi - accused of turning a blind eye to genocide - joins the handshake.

The Prime Minister was asked if she was uncomfortable shaking hands with two people accused of serious human rights abuses.

"I think an 18-way handshake is generally awkward," Ardern replied.

At times, things might have been awkward - even uncomfortable, perhaps - but the 18 leaders of the East Asia summit have made progress on trade.

So far, 16 countries have agreed on the text for a trade deal - the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

India the only one dragging its heels on market access. It's also the only RCEP country New Zealand has no existing free trade deal with.

It's been a lumbering seven years trying to get a deal - and could be many more before it's across the line.

There's been added incentive to get a deal sorted - the trade war between the United States and China has sent shockwaves through the global economy.

US President Donald Trump snubbed the summit, with the US' delegation led by national security advisor Robert O'Brien.

Ardern talked with O'Brien - but wouldn't say if there was mention of New Zealand nurse Louisa Akavi, who was taken hostage by ISIS in 2014.

Despite just one night in Bangkok, there has been progress on not one but two trade deals - the upgrade to the China free trade agreement and now a major step forward with RCEP.

It's been a short, occasionally awkward, but successful trip.


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