Bill English says his new role on the world stage is "challenging and energising", and he is trying to pick up where John Key left off - albeit with his own style. Sam Sachdeva reports.
Speaking to Newsroom on a balcony high up in his Hong Kong hotel, the wind whipping his tie over his shoulder, Bill English appeared happy with the bird’s-eye view of his second overseas trip as New Zealand’s leader.
He has a lot to live up to: John Key’s time in charge coincided with the country’s highest profile on the world stage in recent memory, including a stint on the UN Security Council.
Yet his six-day visit to Japan and Hong Kong gave him enough to be comfortable with the step up, including a fruitful discussion with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and no obvious faux pas.
It helped that the schedule played to English’s strengths as a numbers man, including meetings with economists, business groups and foreign investors who could provide some welcome capital for infrastructure projects.
It’s hard to imagine him, for instance, donning a pink scarf and batik shirt to tout for tourism in front of hundreds of screaming Indonesian teenagers as Key did.
The quips and wisecracks also spring forth less frequently; his best came during a meeting with Hong Kong’s chief executive CY Leung, who mentioned he had once visited English’s birthplace of Lumsden in Southland - “there probably hasn’t been quite the same economic development as Hong Kong,” the PM responded.
Spinning a web of relationships
Key’s success was in part due to the strong bonds he formed with world leaders – hitting the golf course with Barack Obama and having sleepovers with Malcolm Turnbull – and English is aware he will do well to follow his lead.
“I didn’t travel with John so I don’t know exactly how he did it, but I know about his capacity to form personal relationships, and that is a pretty critical part of this role.
“In politics, the leaders keep changing…so it’s an ongoing task for a New Zealand prime minister, as a small country needs to, to do more of the work to make sure we understand their worldview, and contribute where we can – and sometimes we can have a bit of influence.”
He describes his move onto the world stage as “challenging and energising”, mentioning his meetings with the leaders of Germany, the UK, the EU, China and Australia as signs of New Zealand’s outsized influence.
“I think it underlines the relatively exceptional position New Zealand is in, with consistent economic growth…but also confirms the real interest of these much larger countries in a relationship with a small country which shares their values, when a lot of those values are in question.”
English says he will focus on spinning his own “web” of relationships, while pushing ahead with a range of mooted free trade deals.
Symbolic value of TPP
Chief among those is the TPP: in this regard, his meeting with Abe was a success, with the Japanese leader doubling down on efforts to revive the free trade deal despite the withdrawal of the US earlier in the year.
While some countries, including Australia, are reportedly keen to tweak less palatable aspects of the original deal, English argues it is in New Zealand’s best interests for the text to stay as it is.
“Any particular country could take the opportunity to pull a bit out and want it changed, that would mean that everyone would and so the TPP would be unlikely to occur.
“We can ensure that our interests are looked after by proceeding on the basis of what’s in the agreement now, and that’ll provide in any case in the long run the best opportunity for the US to join it.”
The economic modelling is also unchanged: MFAT hasn’t yet crunched the numbers on the changed impact of a TPP11, while English says there are no “formalised numbers that everyone wants to stand by.”
He believes the general benefits of the deal still hold, pointing to potential gains for Kiwi beef exporters to Japan, while arguing there is strategic value in being what Abe described as “the flagbearers for free trade”.
“It means there’s less gain for New Zealand, but still considerable gains, and in a world where these agreements are proving to be sort of markers of the willingness of a range of countries to push on with being open to trade, we think the symbolism of it is pretty important.”
US 'distractions' unhelpful
English has not been shy in calling out what he describes as “the tide of protectionism”, saying US politicians’ anti-TPP stances could cost them when voters realise what they’re missing out on.
Yet with the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russia’s involvement in the US election, and leaks from the White House turning into a steady flow, the country seems unlikely to look beyond its own borders anytime soon.
English chooses his words carefully, but it’s clear he regards the ongoing chaos as an unhelpful diversion from more pressing issues.
“We wouldn’t want to see all these domestic policy issues have an impact on economic confidence in the US, because they play an important role pulling the world economy along, nor would we want to see them distracted from their broader defence and security interests."
Trump’s struggles to get his diplomatic appointees confirmed have also made life difficult, with English saying it is “a bit hard to connect with them directly”.
Asia stepping up
While the US has shifted its focus inwards, he says other countries have been able to step into the breach and take more prominent leadership roles.
“We find ourselves in a position probably no-one expected even five years ago, where China has become a standard-bearer for open trade and investment flows, and now Japan who only six or seven years ago were regarded as completely uninterested in TPP now find themselves playing a leadership role with it – probably the key role.”
China’s leadership has manifested itself through its involvement in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade deal initiated by the ASEAN nations but backed strongly by the world’s second-largest economy.
New Zealand has so far puts its emphasis on the TPP over RCEP, and it’s clear English has reservations about some of the latter’s trade provisions “that aren’t going to have much impact”.
“We think there’s some way to go there to get a high-quality agreement, and particularly one that’s commercially relevant to our exporters.”
Managing a balance between countries with rival interests is tricky, as English has already found out: a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said his discussion of the South China Sea issue with Abe was “inappropriate”, according to Xinhua.
Just another strand of the web that he’ll have to carefully maintain in the months ahead.