Fran O'Sullivan: Sometimes it pays to make first move early

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US and Oz know when to break with protocol. Why doesn't Key?

I emailed the Prime Minister's chief press secretary yesterday to find out if John Key had congratulated Xi Jinping on his elevation to the top role in the Chinese Communist Party.

"I'll check it out and get back to you," Kevin Taylor replied.

It's the kind of request that the Beehive's ninth-floor operators should have foreshadowed given the milestone in Chinese politics.

Taylor later spelled out there was no congratulatory message from the PM as this was simply a transition in the party leadership in China.

"The transition will be complete in March 2013 at the National People's Congress. The March 2013 session of China's National People's Congress (Parliament) is the appropriate time for the New Zealand Government to offer formal congratulations to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang as they are appointed respectively as President and Premier."

It is a valid enough response. But interestingly one that is not shared by either the US or Australia.

Barack Obama is reported to have congratulated Xi on his "election" to the top Communist role in China. The Chinese official news agency Xinhua claims Obama told Xi, "I recall your successful visit to the United States last February, and the positive and constructive discussions we had about the future of US-China relations.

"I look forward to working with you in the years ahead to continue building a co-operative partnership that benefits both of our peoples and advances peace and prosperity, especially through practical co-operation on regional and global economic and security challenge."

Closer to home Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard welcomed the Chinese leadership transition. Her spokesman said the Australian Government congratulated Xi on his appointment at the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China as party General Secretary.

"General Secretary Xi Jinping is well known to Australia and we look forward to working closely with him in his new leadership role to deepen and enhance bilateral relations and to strengthen our engagement on a broad range of shared regional and global challenges," the Gillard spokesman said.

"Australia is committed to a positive, comprehensive, constructive and co-operative relationship with China, now and into the future."

The US and Australia each have more challenging relationships with China which will be tested during their discussions with China at Tuesday's East Asia Summit in Cambodia.

That summit will essentially launch negotiations on a new regional closer economic partnership (RCEP) which will involve the 10 South-East Asian nations which comprise Asean plus Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, the Republic of Korea and India.

These 16 nations account for about half the global population and a third of the world's annual gross domestic product. The RCEP agreement will essentially bring together existing Asean free-trade agreements, including the Asean-Australia-New Zealand FTA which is being seen as a benchmark for the broader deal.

The US has been (pointedly) left out of these discussions. The talks won't just focus on economic issues. Obama plans to tackle China on security tensions with Japan.

But from Key's perspective the primary driver is economic. Not just the RCEP talks but also the push he plans to launch behind Trade Minister Tim Groser's campaign to succeed Pascal Lamy as the next head of the World Trade Organisation.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is expected to head the China dele-gation. Xi does not take over until March. But it seems a pity the PM has missed an opportunity to stress warms ties with the incoming Chinese leader.

When Xi came to New Zealand in October 2010, he pledged China's support to New Zealand's bid to join the UN Security Council in 2015. He also suggested New Zealand and China should work together within the World Trade Organisation, Apec and the East Asia Summit. He said then that China would be a force against international protectionism.

And he underscored the role the Chinese economy had played in supporting New Zealand since the global financial crisis but stressed there were potentially fruitful new areas of co-operation in sustainable energy, green environment, biotech and new technologies and expanding student exchanges and tourism. Economic integration between New Zealand and China has deepened since Xi's visit.

Xi's attention will initially have a strong domestic focus as he grapples with slower economic growth and rising public demands for change to deal with corruption and unrest over mounting inequality.

Gaining Xi's attention will be no easy feat. Sometimes, it pays to play outside the established protocol rules. Obama and Gillard get that. Why doesn't Key?

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

Read more by Fran O'Sullivan

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