The lengthy coalition negotiations cost Christopher Luxon an early opportunity to have one-on-one talks with the world’s two most powerful political leaders early on in his term as Prime Minister.
Plans for Luxon to have a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and a separate pull-aside with US President Joe Biden had to be jettisoned once it was clear that a coalition deal would not be in place in time for him to get to San Francisco for the Apec leaders’ meeting.
This happens in politics.
Luxon earlier shrugged off the Apec miss, saying it was more important to get workable government arrangements in place first. There would be other opportunities to promote New Zealand as being open for business.
But there is an added cachet that comes from being the newest political kid on the block. Particularly following in the footsteps of Dame Jacinda Ardern, who remains a political phenomenon in Apec circles.
Another opportunity for the incoming Prime Minister to meet Xi and Biden at much the same time is unlikely to occur in the short term. Even though Peru is slated to host Apec in 2024, that is also the year of the next US presidential election, which may cause a timing conflict.
The political gavotte between Biden and Xi has dominated talks in San Francisco. Not just among the leaders from the 21 economies that comprise Apec, but also at the various business forums such as the CEO Summit and the Sustainable Futures forum.
The fact the two met in the first place has helped spur business confidence. But it is fragile.
What is clear is that a potential official visit by Xi to New Zealand next year is under consideration. The invitation was extended by departing Prime Minister Chris Hipkins when he met Xi at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in June.
Xi last visited New Zealand in 2014 on a state visit. He had earlier come to New Zealand when he was vice-president to Hu Jintao.
It is possible Xi will also visit Australia, now the relationship with that country has improved.
As it stands, departing Trade Minister Damien O’Connor, who stood in for New Zealand at all the top meetings, has had a good Apec indeed.
O’Connor was able to sign off on his year chairing the Commission for the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) with a signature win under his belt: O’Connor’s deft stewardship at ministerial level, underpinned by careful navigation by New Zealand’s chief trade negotiator Vangelis Vitalis at official level, ensured a consensus was forged in two vital areas.
First, that the agreement would be reviewed. Terms of reference are public on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade website. But the key elements involve updating the digital framework, which is out of date, and addressing the role of state-owned enterprises. The accession protocol which outlines the process for new members to join the CPTPP will also be updated.
New Zealand’s Apec Business Advisory Council (Abac) members hosted a business dialogue which was attended by six CPTPP ministers. As Abac NZ put it, this was a chance for ministers to outline their support for an expanding, high-quality agreement. They stressed the need to modernise the agreement to include more ambitious digital commitments, including on paperless trade, to make progress on new accessions, and to find ways to address climate and inclusion.
Movements on the Indo-Pacific Framework for Economic Prosperity led by the United States have underwhelmed.
O’Connor’s ministerial colleagues on the international trade circuit also know what it’s like to lose an election and be unceremoniously dumped from office. “You’re just a busted flush,” one former trade minister told me.
But the trade ministers of Australia and Singapore, Don Farrell and Gan Kim Yong, hosted farewell drinks for O’Connor earlier in the week.
There was also some partying with “Albo” - Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese - and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, two other left-of-centre politicians O’Connor knows well.
The trio were the last Apec leaders to leave a stunning welcome reception that the city hosted for Biden, staying on to hear singer Gwen Stefani finish her numbers.
But it’s not all been wine and skittles.
Several of the major bilateral leaders’ meetings still went ahead.
O’Connor confirmed to me that he prosecuted New Zealand’s national interest in a bipartisan fashion. Full notes were taken of the meetings and they will be digested and made available to the incoming Government,
Politicians serve at the pleasure of voters, and those trade ministers representing democratic nations at the 2023 Apec each know they could be thrown out themselves come election time.
By Fran O’Sullivan at Apec in San Francisco