New Zealand’s Ardern urges US to return to regional trade pact

Remarks are latest signal by an Asia-Pacific leader that US President Biden’s engagement with region is falling short.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a press conference in Wellington, New Zealand.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has urged the United States to return to a sweeping regional trade pact it quit in 2017 [File: Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald via AP]

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has urged the United States to rejoin a sweeping trade deal it quit in 2017, in the latest signal by an Asia-Pacific leader that Washington’s efforts to engage the region are falling short.

Speaking on a visit to Washington, DC, on Thursday, Ardern said the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) was the “gold standard” for fostering deeper economic ties.

“If the United States is looking to engage in our region economically, then that is the place to do it,” she said.

Ardern made her remarks two days after US President Joe Biden wrapped up his first official trip to Asia, during which he unveiled a new economic framework aimed at shoring up US engagement and countering rising Chinese influence in the region.

The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), comprising 12 other countries including New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, aims to develop common standards in areas including trade, supply chains, clean energy and tax policy.

While many countries in the region have welcomed Biden’s outreach amid shared concerns about Beijing’s growing assertiveness, the initiative has faced criticism for not expanding trade opportunities, including access to US markets.

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob earlier this month called on Washington to “adopt a more active trade and investment agenda” with Southeast Asian countries, which are wary of Beijing’s ambitions but also depend on Chinese trade.

The Biden administration has been reluctant to join the CPTPP, which has been signed by 11 Asia-Pacific countries that account for 13 percent of the global economy, due to concerns that more American jobs would be shipped overseas.

“New Zealand sees IPEF as a promising start, but it’s not enough to show that the US is really going to be at the heart of where regional economic integration goes in the future,” Robert Ayson, professor of strategic studies at Victoria University of Wellington, told Al Jazeera, adding that New Zealand’s “central message” is that the IPEF is not a substitute for US participation in the CPTPP.

“And power in Asia starts with economic factors – just think of how China has shown that to be the case. Ardern realises that given domestic sentiment in the US, the likelihood of the US joining the CPTPP is highly unlikely, and she knows that Biden is in a bind here. I am sure Biden wants the US inside CPTPP too, but Congress won’t deliver that, and that’s one reason he goes for IPEF.”

In Washington, Ardern, who is on a trade mission to the US, said the IPEF would be a “starting point” for discussions on cooperation on issues including climate change and the digital economy.

“So that is an opportunity and opening for us,” she said. “We will take that, but we will keep advocating for market access too.”

Ardern said New Zealand joined the initiative as it is “better to be at the table shaping those discussions than not, but we will keep pushing at every step for market access”.

The New Zealand leader’s US trip is aimed at boosting exports and tourists as the country prepares to fully reopen its borders after more than two years of restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ardern’s trip, which features stops in New York, Washington, DC, Boston, San Francisco and Seattle, will include meetings with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and executives from Twitter, Microsoft and Amazon. Ardern, who is recovering from a recent case of COVID-19, has yet to announce plans to visit Biden at the White House, which is subject to strict pandemic protocols.

Asha Sundaram, a senior economics lecturer at the University of Auckland, said countries in the region are unsure how or whether the IPEF will further economic integration.

“Trade agreements like the CPTPP and RCEP go a long way towards reducing trade barriers between member countries, facilitating trade and bringing gains from specialisation,” Sundaram told Al Jazeera, referring to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes China but not the US.

“Such gains are important for the region, particularly for emerging East Asian economies. US participation in an agreement like the CPTPP would be welcome because it would afford better market access to the US, something the current US outreach does not appear to do.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies