Former Prime Minister John Key says a White House visit for Jacinda Ardern will be critical to ensure the partnership with the US does not "drift" at a time it's becoming harder to balance the US and China relationships.
Ardern is waiting to hear whether her recent Covid-19 infection has scuttled her chances of a meeting with US President Joe Biden on her US trip this week - but there is optimism it will go ahead.
Last week, Sir John Key spoke to the NZ Herald about the importance of building a personal relationship with the US President – and whether he is still in touch with the President he went to visit at the White House, Barack Obama.
Key also talked about New Zealand's relationship with China and the United States, saying balancing those relationships was now much harder than when he was PM and he feared the time was coming when New Zealand would be asked to "pick a side".
'The relationship has drifted' - The 'critical' importance of a White House visit, Key's relationship with Obama and Biden
It has been a long time between White House visits for New Zealand - Key was the last Prime Minister to visit in both 2011 and in 2014 when Obama was President. Key was also PM when Biden visited New Zealand in 2016 as the vice-president.
However, normal transmission on visits was interrupted for Ardern first by the election of Donald Trump as President, and then by Covid-19 border closures from 2020. Biden was elected in 2021, and Ardern is yet to meet him face to face.
Key said Ardern had not had the same opportunities to build a personal relationship as he had because of the border closures.
Now travel was back on a more normal footing, he said he hoped Ardern would secure her White House meeting, especially as Biden started looking more at the Indo Pacific region - "they are the global superpower".
"And if anything I think the relationship with the US has drifted a little bit in recent times. You can see how much they rely on Australia, and just as an observer it feels we are a little bit more distanced from them."
Key was luckier than Ardern both in his timing and in the President he got - his reign coincided with that of Obama while Ardern's coincided with Trump.
His relationship with Obama was also oiled by other factors - both were of a similar age, both loved golf, and both holidayed in Hawaii. Key says that had meant time alone with Obama, including playing golf. Key was also instrumental in getting Obama to visit New Zealand after his presidency ended in 2018, including for a golf game and a speaking event in 2018.
It hadn't started well. The first time Obama tried to call him, Key did not recognise the number so ignored it. Eventually his staff got in touch and told him it was Obama trying to call.
Key recognises the numbers now - the two are still occasionally in touch with each other, usually over the golf. "He was playing golf in Maui the other day. But it was before I could get there so I haven't seen him in a while."
He said the relationship with a US President was never going to be as casual or frequent as with the leaders of countries such as Australia.
But they were critical. "It is really, really important for Ardern to get some time to be able to develop a relationship which ultimately allows you to have phone calls. It's easier to achieve an ask or something you want when you have a deeper relationship, and that only happens through face time."
The White House was not the be-all and end-all for talking to the President - at international summits such as Apec there was a lot more time for the casual interactions that lead to personal relationships over meals and on the sidelines.
"But the ceremonial aspects and the things you can formally put on the agenda means the White House is critical."
Ardern had discovered early how useful international summits were for meeting fellow leaders: she does have leaders she can drop a WhatsApp to - and that helped to get extra Pfizer vaccines from Spain and others when New Zealand's stock was in danger of running short in 2021. They were leaders she had met at international summits before and stayed in touch with.
However, summits have not been held in person for two years because of Covid-19, meaning she did not have the same opportunities.
Key met Biden on a number of occasions when Biden was Vice-President, including when Biden visited NZ and on Key's visits to the White House.
He said he would expect Ardern would be much keener to visit the White House with Biden as President than Trump.
"He's a very engaging, welcoming, friendly person and I think he is well disposed towards New Zealand. So certainly having him as President and someone who has been to New Zealand and knows the relationship well, and has had a long history - decades in the Senate - I think we are well placed to continue a good relationship with the United States."
On what had surprised or impressed him about Biden's presidency so far, Key pointed to the response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. "The work on the sanctions with Russia has been more forward leaning and more successful than I probably would have given it credit for. So that's a positive. On the negative, the withdrawal from Afghanistan to me looked badly handled."
Taking a side? Balancing the relationships with the US and China is harder now:
Key said there was no doubt managing the balance of the relationship with the US and the relationship with China was more challenging now than it had been when he was PM.
"Without doubt the world is becoming a more polarised place. It begs the question whether countries such as New Zealand will over time be asked to choose who is their better friend.
"I've always thought that is a space we don't want to get into. We have different relationships with different countries."
That was partly because of China's ties with Russia, international concern about China's actions at home and with Hong Kong and Taiwan, and moves such as China's security agreement with the Solomon Islands, giving rise to fears it was attempting to get a military base in the Pacific.
It is a similar concern to that alluded to by Ardern ahead of her trip. She too used the word "polarised" when asked whether New Zealand was moving closer to the US and what that meant for its relationship with China. "We live in a time where there's increasingly a perspective of a polarised approach where a country sits in one camp or another." She went on to say New Zealand made its own decisions, based on values, and side-stepped the question of China.
Key said the relationship with the United States was comprehensive: "It's long-standing, we are culturally similar, we share many values, we are English-speaking, we are democracies. There are just so many aspects we can say there are ties, including military, and they are long-standing. All of these things you can say tie us together.
"Our relationship with China is quite a different one. And while it's more mercantile and economic in nature, that doesn't mean it's not a very important one. Their economy will continue to grow and prosper.
"So really we don't want to be caught as the meat in the sandwich."
He said Australia had long made it clear it was firmly in the US camp "and clearly opposed to China and its leadership there".
"I've always thought New Zealand should walk a much more careful and nuanced path."
Ardern has nudged toward the US more, voicing support for the Indo Pacific strategy but without openly criticising China.
Key puts some of this increased difficulty in balancing the relationship down to Trump. He said Trump's argument China had created an uneven playing field which was hurting the blue collar workers of America had meant "he had to turn China into the bogeyman".
He said the narrative around China had changed as a result: "When I was PM and I talked a lot about China, people saw it for what it was: a tremendous economic opportunity that underpinned jobs. They were one of the reasons the world came out of the GFC more rapidly and in better shape than they otherwise would have."
So it was seen as a real positive. However in recent years you'd have to say the narrative has been more negatively biased."
He said he wouldn't necessarily support that view: "Most people know that I've been pro-China and I remain that way. But you'd have to be a realist and say the narrative has become more challenging."
CPTPP or Bust - the prospects of trade deals with the US:
New Zealand Prime Ministers tend to have a similar position on the issue of trade with the US, regardless of whether they are blue or red – and that position is for the CPTPP (the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership).
Key said he had been disappointed that Trump chose to pull the US out of the TPP in 2017 after Obama had effectively taken the lead in it.
He said pushing the case for free trade would always be "front and centre-stage" for New Zealand on such visits and the CPTPP should remain the goal.
Key said the TPP had been the primary focus of his talks with the US: "That was our opportunity to get an FTA because we had never managed to get a bilateral FTA and were unlikely to do so."
Ardern has made it clear that the US joining the CPTPP was what she would prefer rather than Biden's much looser Indo Pacific Economic plan.
Key said he had not looked in depth at Biden's Indo Pacific Economic plan.
"But anything the US wants to do that shows economic leadership in the region and gives us greater access to their consumer base is to be welcomed.
But we know that process is slow and hard work."
On the chances that the US would also move on the CPTPP, Key said it could depend on how concerned they were about China.
He said the US could argue they did not need it because they were big enough to sustain themselves and were content with the bilateral agreements.
"But on the other side of the coin, they are always conscious of the fact that if they leave a vacuum it will be filled. And do they want that vacuum filled? That would be the question I would ask.
"There's no question the US had seen TPP as a way of showing leadership in the region. Some people would argue that was to counter-balance what they saw as growing influence from China.
"I always thought China would be a sensible member of the TPP and have actively encouraged that and they are showing signs of wanting to potentially join."
He said it should still be top of the list for New Zealand.
"If you think about New Zealand and its place in the world, we only get wealthy when we access a very large, middle-income global consumer base. Our population is too small and not viable for the growth we want.
"And the biggest consumer base rests in the United States. That is changing over time as you see Asia becoming wealthier and greater opportunities there, but there is no getting away from the fact that the US economy is still in nominal terms enormous and they have a huge slug of middle-income consumers.
"So they are critically important for New Zealand business. And any capacity for us to access them on fairer terms is to be welcomed."
Key said climate change had also been a staple in his White House discussions and regional security, including Five Eyes and other initiatives.
His own recollection of the White House was that the Oval Office was smaller than he expected - it is something Ardern may not see since Biden's fixtures largely take place outside now.