Prime Minister Helen Clark’s strong backing for the American war on terrorism won her and New Zealand new respect at the Apec conference.
After just four days at Shanghai, she is now looking like an emerging Asia-Pacific leader and power player.
She has shed, in United States eyes, her image as a flinty anti-American academic and joined the ranks of those leaders who it believes can be counted on when the chips are down.
New Zealand has long been a champion of Apec’s campaign to liberalise Asian-Pacific trade, but with security dominating this year’s agenda, all the kudos went to those political leaders who have taken a stand against terrorism.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell honoured Helen Clark with a special strategy meeting and the influential US Chamber of Commerce hosted a breakfast to position New Zealand’s push for a free-trade agreement with the US.
These changes represent a huge ground shift for Helen Clark, the former international affairs specialist who took a strong stance against America’s ham-handed tactics during the volatile 1980s, when Labour banned nuclear-powered ships from entering New Zealand’s waters.
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Fifteen years ago, the US foreign affairs establishment viewed Clark as dangerous – too soft on Latin American affairs.
But times have changed. US businessmen, who just months ago were equivocal over New Zealand’s push for a free-trade agreement with the US, have now acknowledged New Zealand’s quick pledge to commit SAS troops to the Afghanistan ground war and they went out of their way to show support for New Zealand at Apec’s CEO Summit.
There are caveats of course: the Bush Administration has to get trade promotion authority approved by Congress and the US agricultural sector, particularly the dairy sector, will inevitably be opposed to it.
New Zealand will have to mount a high-profile and persistent campaign to get the issue onto the Washington agenda.
But as Thomas Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce, advised Washington Ambassador-designate John Wood at Saturday’s breakfast meeting, keep tweaking it.
Mr Donohue’s prescription suggests New Zealand should create a web of support for a free-trade agreement by lobbying influential players in the Bush Administration.
New Zealand’s 3.8 million population does not represent a huge new market to the US, but he suggests that a free-trade deal that couples New Zealand with Australia could be attractive to the US Administration.
He has asked his Asia specialist, Myron Brilliant, to lend a hand as the chamber assists the New Zealand Embassy in Washington to gather support from US corporations.
A letter signed by many US corporations is expected to be sent to Bush soon. Congressional support is also being marshalled and a deputation is expected to come to New Zealand next year.
The Coalition Government’s decision to cut New Zealand’s Air Force might have upset National politicians but it counted for little in Shanghai.
The only thing that matters here is New Zealand’s commitment to supporting the ground war.
President George W. Bush’s fight against terrorism dominated the meeting for political and business leaders alike.
But despite the focus on terrorism, which stopped short of endorsing the US Strike on Terror, the official Apec agenda of speeding up the liberalisation of trade and gaining a broad commitment to a new round at the World Trade Organisation was accomplished.
Mr Bush’s message to the Apec CEOs’ Summit was the rallying call that 500 business leaders from the Asia Pacific countries had been waiting for.
The increasingly gloomy projections for the global economy meant business leaders were wanting the politicians to demonstrate that they had not been deflected by Osama bin Laden and were still committed to keeping the trade agenda moving.
Bush was on target with his statement that the terrorist attacks on the US were an assault on the global economic system that had fuelled prosperity throughout the region.
He told the business leaders that world free trade would continue, the ties of commerce would grow stronger and economic development would grow broader.
Business leaders like Hewlett-Packard’s Carly Fiorina captured the mood by committing their companies to invest in social development, not just profits.
By the time those attending had gathered for the farewell celebrations the mood was elevated.
Shanghai’s towering skyline provided the backdrop for a spectacular fireworks show over the Huangpu River, the largest such show in China’s history and a fittingly optimistic finish to the business summit.
* Fran O’Sullivan joined the NZ business delegation to the Apec summit.
- This NZ Herald column is republished courtesy APN NZ.