Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O' Sullivan: Key's Latin American trip adds to our shine

Four Presidents see NZ as a leader in reforms and a valuable partner

John Key met Brazil's Dilma Rousseff (right) and three other Presidents on his Latin American mission. Photo / Supplied
John Key met Brazil's Dilma Rousseff (right) and three other Presidents on his Latin American mission. Photo / Supplied

John Key dealt himself the political equivalent of a straight flush by leveraging his Latin America tour into a series of diplomatic wins.

All four nations he visited are likely to vote for New Zealand to have a seat as a semi-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council; free trade talks with Colombia will be accelerated; more Latin American students will be educated here ... and so it goes on.

Key's Latin American swing basically squared the Asia Pacific circle for New Zealand.

From a diplomatic perspective New Zealand is already well-established and well-regarded in North Asia; has a free trade deal with the Southeast Asian (Asean) block, has strong relations with Australia and is continuing to strengthen its relationship with the United States.

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark and her team positioned New Zealand to become part of the Asian (read China) growth story. But we are a small nation.

Our politicians have limited time to pursue international relationships, particularly given the demands of a three-year electoral cycle. They didn't quite take their collective eye off the Latin American ball while the LatAm nations transformed their economies. But it is obvious that New Zealand is "under-cooked" in the region and has some catchup to do.

By opting to front a trade mission into Latin America, Key was effectively taking a "forward-leaning" (as the bureaucrats say) approach to the region. It provided an important opportunity for NZ; not only to grasp new opportunities but also to diversify political and business risk, preventing an over-dependence on China for the country's growth.

Key's 12-day mission has positioned New Zealand not only as a valuable political partner in regional fora but also a valuable partner when it comes to transforming agriculture or providing education.

Importantly, Key was the first international leader on new Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's dance-card and will rejoin him in three weeks at the Boao forum in Hainan Island, where both will be in a tight group of world leaders among the first to meet with Xi Jinping after his formal election as President of China on Thursday.

Pena Nieto pointed to NZ's role as an observer country in the new outwardly looking Pacific Alliance, saying it offered a great opportunity as this block is integrated by Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico. "With this, we can have a stronger presence and wider exchange - something we wish to do - in the Asia region.

"We must remember that New Zealand is part of the Transpacific Partnership and that it was due to the support given by New Zealand to Mexico that our country joined this agreement, of which we are now members, and in which this region - America, and North America, is integrated with countries from Asia."

It is probable that Chile's President Pinera will also be at the Boao forum. Pinera, a polished performer on the international stage, publicly authenticated New Zealand's reputation as a leader in trade liberalisation and exponent of free market economic reforms during their bilateral meeting in Santiago.

This was a common theme during Key's meetings with four Latin American Presidents (Colombia's courageous President Santos and Brazil's compelling President Rousseff completed the quartet). Each of the leaders was well-briefed on New Zealand's track record in democratic and social reform (first country to give women the vote, an early leader developing a welfare state and a leader in delivering justice to "first nation" people).

But what struck me was their acknowledgement of New Zealand's role as an influential interlocutor in fora such as the UN, the World Trade Organisation, the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Emissions, Apec and of course the TPP where compelling diplomatic advocacy by New Zealand led to the expansion of the original P4 partners into a major developing regional trade agreement.

New Zealand's historic position as the first developed nation to cement a free trade deal with China gives us added cachet in Latin America.

Some of the other leaders at Xi's forthcoming economic soiree will know this.

Each political leader will be given six to 10 minutes to present his or her positioning statement.

Key will be developing his over the next couple of weeks.

When he arrives in Hainan Island he will already be one of the most senior leaders within the Apec grouping by virtue of having been in power for 4 years.

Clark exploited her own longevity within that same Asia-Pacific grouping by pushing a number of issues on to the Apec agenda in her last years as Prime Minister.

Behind the scenes a lot of work has gone into developing the New Zealand brand story beyond the "100 per cent pure NZ" slogan that has defined our tourism.

The four Latin American Presidents saw New Zealand differently: A leader in social and democratic reforms; an early leader in economic reform but more importantly as a smart nation that they saw as a valuable partner, not simply a competitor.

- NZ Herald

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