In a matter of weeks, Joe Biden's Administration will launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework negotiations and New Zealand will be at the party.
The framework focuses on four main pillars: Supply chain resilience; trade facilitation; decarbonisation and infrastructure; and taxation and anti-corruption.
The United States plans to enter into agreements with different sets of countries for each pillar, but those seeking trade facilitation will be expected to sign on to all four according to Nikkei, Bloomberg and other news agencies.
This may be as good as it gets for free trade aficionados within the United States and in New Zealand.
The framework is designed to be put in place by executive order — rather than having to jump through the hoops that fractious politicians from both the Republican and Democratic camps would raise before giving it the thumbs-down.
It is a given that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's Government will join negotiations.
Trade and Export Growth Minister Damien O'Connor has been intimately involved in the talks since last year.
Others expected to sign on are Australia — whose Trade Minister Dan Tehan recently had talks in Washington DC — Japan and Singapore. Within the Asean bloc, Malaysia is seen as a key prospect. Also, South Korea and India.
The World Trade Online website is reporting disappointment within US political circles that the Biden Administration is not prepared to move on market access and tariffs.
In reality, that is unlikely until a future President, Congress and Senate have the determination, electoral bandwidth and political capital to get a full-blown trade deal over the line where the issue of market access is also uppermost.
This columnist has been among the many who have long plumped for a bilateral free trade deal with the United States.
We never got there of course.
But it is simplistic to say New Zealand was just not seen as strategic enough for US interests, or that respective administrations would not have the political capital to negotiate with a country of just 5 million people. Nor that New Zealand did not have sufficient negotiating coin, as a result of a prior Labour Government's decision to unilaterally liberalise our trading regime in the 1980s.
We may have had fewer cards to play in a tariff tradeoff. But consecutive New Zealand trade and foreign affairs officials have brought strategic heft to regional negotiations.
The upshot is, we almost got a free trade deal by default through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Former Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff co-launched negotiations with former Republican Trade Representative Susan Schwab in New York in 2008. Eight countries had signed up the negotiations by the time the Peru Apec rolled around later that year.
The Obama Administration then put its own colours on the table.
Former United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk wanted to negotiate "an ambitious, next-generation, Asia-Pacific trade agreement that reflected US priorities and values" — effectively setting the "rules of the road" for Asia-Pacific trade.
In effect, code for heading off China.
But the Obama Administration was too slow.
Once President Donald Trump entered the scene, the free trade mantra was leveraged to become anathema for his support base.
His opponent for the presidency — former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — withdrew her support for the TPP as a result of Trump's campaigning. Yet at a forum in Washington DC in January 2020, attended by this columnist, former US Trade Representative Mike Froman indicated that they had formulated a "fix" that would have got the deal over the line in the event Clinton won.
This is not fanciful.
Let's face it, before the 2017 election Labour politicians — including Ardern — had campaigned against the TPP.
Some post-election tweaks and a name change to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and it was embraced.
The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework will clearly be on the agenda when Ardern gets her invitation to the White House.
New Zealand's O'Connor has been involved in discussions with two of the leading female members of the Biden Cabinet: Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai.
Raimondo and Tai are jointly spearheading the development and launch of negotiations on the framework.
(As an aside, 12 members of the 24-strong Biden Cabinet are women.)
A read-out from the White House talks about how the US has modernised its longstanding alliances and strengthened emerging partnerships to meet urgent challenges, from competition with China to climate change to the pandemic.
"It has done so at a time when allies and partners around the world are increasingly enhancing their own engagement in the Indo-Pacific; and when there is broad, bipartisan agreement in the US Congress that the United States must, too.
"This convergence in commitment to the region, across oceans and across political-party lines, reflects an undeniable reality: the Indo-Pacific is the most dynamic region in the world, and its future affects people everywhere," said the White House.
Against this is the reality that China is also spreading its wings. It is China that is seeking to join the CPTPP — not the US.
As the Chinese Embassy's Facebook page noted this week — as it recorded that this year would be the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and New Zealand, and remembered the implementation of the upgrade of the bilateral free trade agreement — New Zealand's trade relationship with China has flourished.
In my view the US should opt to make a deal that delivers major benefits to its partners.
It is rather rum that China is pursuing membership of the CPTPP and is prepared to make changes to ensure its economy becomes more competitive and the US won't.