Top concerns for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on first foreign trip since COVID-19 to Singapore, Japan

The "threatened and disrupted" rules-based order and the potential militarisation of the Pacific are top concerns for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as she meets with Asian leaders. 

The Prime Minister on Monday departed New Zealand for her first overseas trip since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. She is meeting with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and will later this week head to Japan. 

Speaking to reporters in Singapore on Tuesday, Ardern said there will be several topics to discuss with her Asian counterparts, not least of all Russia's invasion of Ukraine and also China's growing influence in the Pacific. 

"It's fair to say that we are living in an increasingly complex part of the world and have been for some time," Ardern said. 

"But we're also seeing globally that there is pressure on our rules-based order. It has been threatened and disrupted and upended by the actions of Russia. 

"I think what we want to see in our region is that we continue the dialogue that is needed to ensure we don't see escalation in our part of the world, militarisation in our part of the world, that we respect one another's sovereignty and territory, and take a very strong stand where we see others in breach of those principles."

Her comments came a week after the NATO military alliance of 30 countries across Europe and North America agreed to "step up" and help New Zealand, Australia, Japan and South Korea combat "China's growing influence"

In a speech following high-level meetings with top diplomats, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the post-World War II alliance had "agreed to step up cooperation with our partners in the Asia-Pacific". 

The outcome was significant for New Zealand and the Pacific, because NATO agreed to help counter the growing influence of China - New Zealand's largest trading partner - in the region. 

"We have seen that China is unwilling to condemn Russia's aggression. And Beijing has joined Moscow in questioning the right of nations to choose their own path," Stoltenberg said. 

"This is a serious challenge to us all. And it makes it even more important that we stand together to protect our values." 

Stoltenberg said NATO will provide its Asia-Pacific partners with "practical and political cooperation" in the areas of cyber, new technology, countering disinformation, maritime security, climate change, and resilience.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, followed by her Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong, inspect a guard of honour during a welcoming ceremony at the Istana presidential palace in Singapore.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, followed by her Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong, inspect a guard of honour during a welcoming ceremony at the Istana presidential palace in Singapore. Photo credit: Getty Images

Tension in the Pacific

Tension is building in the Pacific after the Solomon Islands negotiated a security deal with China, which both Ardern and her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison have described as concerning. 

Foriegn Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta in 2021 warned that New Zealand could find itself at the heart of a "storm" of anger from China and urged exporters to diversify.

Japan and Singapore represent New Zealand's fourth and fifth largest export markets, respectively, and Ardern described her trip as a chance to promote Kiwi products and businesses to those markets. 

China was noticeably absent from Ardern's list of Asian stop-offs. Chinese President Xi Jinping rolled out the red carpet for her in 2019 but not this time. 

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said it's nothing to be concerned about. 

"Our relations with China are good and obviously New Zealand continues to export a lot of goods into China and has done right through the pandemic," he told AM. 

"China is taking a different approach to COVID than most other countries at the moment and so therefore isn't taking the kinds of delegations that the Prime Minister is currently leading in Japan and Singapore. 

"From time to time, we are going to have areas where we disagree with China and we've talked about that openly, we've raised those issues with them, but it doesn't mean that the relationship overall is in trouble or anything like that."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pictured with her Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pictured with her Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong. Photo credit: Supplied

But Robertson acknowledged the Government's ambitions to diversify. 

"China will remain important, but equally we've got to be pushing those markets where we already have a foothold in Singapore and Japan, but also the United States and up into Europe, South America. These are all places where New Zealand has the potential to sell our goods and services into," he told AM. 

"We're definitely looking for a diversification strategy. It's an important part of our economic plan."

Free trade with America?

Ardern in Singapore echoed her previous calls for the United States to play a larger role in the Pacific and to contribute more multilaterally.

"We're interested in seeing greater interest from the United States in this region in an economic sense and trade forms a strong basis for that engagement and for that growth in relationships," she told reporters. 

"We don't want the region to solely be having conversations around strategic defence issues, militarisation issues. We want to be talking about foreign policy as a whole and the role that greater engagement economically can play in this region and stability in the region as well." 

Former US President Donald Trump was elected in 2016 on the back of a campaign that focused on cutting trade ties, including pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) which New Zealand signed up to.

An updated version of it without the US - the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) - was signed by New Zealand in March 2018. 

It's a free trade agreement between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam. New Zealand already has free trade with China - the first Western nation. 

The US could join the CPTPP under Joe Biden's leadership. 

"You can already see signs that the United States are looking to further their economic relationships in the region," Ardern said. 

"I think between New Zealand, Singapore and Japan, we all see the benefits that the CPTPP has offered us as nations. It sets a very high standard for trade and that's the kind of standard that we'll of course continue to be promoting to those that wish to join.

"We'll continue to encourage others to join that high-quality agreement. It's been very beneficial to New Zealand. But we'll also look for other ways to encourage the likes of the United States to be a part of the economic architecture of this region, to engage in trade relationships, preferably in multilateral agreements. 

"Their presence here is valued in whatever form that takes."