Old Friends, New Challenges: New Zealand and the United States in the Asia-Pacific Century

Speech by Rt. Hon. Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand

Fairmont Hotel, Washington DC
March 20, 2007

Joe Snyder, Executive Director of the Asia Society, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to have the opportunity to address you all here in Washington DC. The Asia Society has been fostering stronger relations between the peoples of the Asia-Pacific and the United States for over fifty years now, and your work continues to be held in high regard in the region.

If your founder, John D Rockefeller III, were with us today, he would be astounded by the Asia we see in the 21st Century. When he created this Society, analysts were predicting that South Korea would remain impoverished, and that Myanmar would be the region's shining star.

Now the pundits say that if the 20th Century belonged to the Atlantic, then this century will be for the Asia-Pacific. In New Zealand we definitely see that shift, along with the continuing important role of the United States. Yours is both an Atlantic and a Pacific nation, and in our eyes a vital partner in the Asia-Pacific.

Our region has seen phenomenal growth over the last 25 years, and there is no sign of it abating. The Asia-Pacific is now home to almost half of the world's population, accounts for close to half of world trade, and produces 57 per cent of global GDP. Eight of the world's ten fastest growing economies are in Asia.

Already the rising economic power of China and India is bringing with it greater regional and global influence. The size of Asia's middle classes will soon rival that of North America and Europe, with an estimated 400 to 800 million citizens so defined by 2015.

This audience does not need to be told how important Asia is to the United States—the facts speak for themselves. Half of the top ten trading partners of the U.S. are in Asia, accounting for nearly U.S. $1 trillion of U.S. trade. The U.S. is the number one trading partner in the region.

Asia's economic progress has lifted millions in our region out of poverty and given them a stake in the global economy. The size and openness of the U.S. economy has played a large role in that. So too has the fact that the region has enjoyed relative peace and stability over the past quarter century.

Asia is of great importance to New Zealand's trade and economic interests. We have seen good growth in trade with Asia, and it has been complemented by flourishing people-to-people links. The number of Asian tourists visiting our shores has almost tripled since 1990, and students from Asia dominate our international education sector. Our demography is fast changing too: with Asian New Zealanders now comprising 9.2 per cent of our population.

We also have significant political and security interests in the region. We note with pleasure encouraging developments, like the holding of democratic elections, which New Zealand and the United States, as longstanding champions of democracy, can celebrate, while also noting that there have been setbacks—most recently in Thailand.

New security threats have emerged in the region, notably from terrorism and proliferation. In today's globalised world, these threats, if left unchecked, can move rapidly across borders. As well, parts of our region are still grappling with traditional transnational concerns, like infectious diseases, drug trafficking, refugees, environmental degradation, and humanitarian disasters.

New Zealand has played its part in promoting peace and prosperity in the region over the years. For long periods of the twentieth century, the Asia Pacific experienced conflict, and we in New Zealand and the United States have found ourselves in several theatres within the region from the Second World War on.

For its size, New Zealand has been a significant provider of development assistance to the region in the post-World War Two period. We were part of the effort to provide support during the major economic crisis which hit Asia in the late 1990s. Today, we work closely with partner governments to tackle extreme poverty, particularly in rural areas. After the devastation of the Indian Ocean tsunami, we helped with relief alongside the United States and others, making our largest ever response to a disaster.

Our development assistance effort these days is focused primarily in the South Pacific. Constitutional and historical linkages, and cultural and family ties, mean we have a special responsibility towards our neighbourhood, alongside our close ally Australia.

Our near region faces serious challenges in the 21st century as globalisation quickens. Distance and isolation, fragile physical environments, limited natural resources, and vulnerability to natural disasters are all part of the Pacific reality. Its governments struggle to cope with adverse health, population, and employment trends. The region also faces challenges of governance, arising from weak or corroded state institutions, capacity and human resource constraints, and an uneasy tension between traditional power systems and contemporary demands for transparent, accountable government.

In parts of the Pacific, pockets of absolute poverty are growing. The socio-economic indicators of some countries in Melanesia are almost on a par with those of sub-Saharan Africa. Internal instability, land conflicts, and ethnic tensions further drive down standards of living. And compounding these internal challenges, the region is grappling with challenges arising from the wider global environment, such as trans-national organised crime. We are working with our Pacific neighbours to strengthen their capacity, including in counter-terrorism, to respond to trans-national threats.

Traditionally, New Zealand's work in the Pacific has emphasised good governance and economic and social development. But the last few years have also seen us engaged as a major provider of security, as a number of countries have teetered on the brink of civil war and anarchy.

We have deployed forces to restore stability in Timor Leste, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. Each situation has called for a different kind of response. In each case, we have worked in partnership with Australia.

New Zealand deployed military personnel to East Timor in 1999 and stayed for three years until after independence and the holding of democratic elections. Our focus then shifted to development assistance. But democracy takes longer than a few years to take hold. Major civil and political unrest returned to East Timor last year. We again deployed forces at the request of the East Timor government, and are set to remain there at least until after new elections have been held later this year.

In the Solomon Islands, the response to widespread instability came from within the region. In mid-2003 the Solomons Government asked for assistance under the auspices of the Pacific Islands Forum, the key regional political institution established in the early 1970s. The resulting mission has incorporated civil, military, and police elements, and takes a holistic approach to stabilisation, including long-term state building as well as security. After the immediate task of re-establishing security, the focus of the mission broadened to helping the government strengthen its institutions and to supporting development.

More recently, the operating mandate of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands has been challenged from within the country. Our presence there needs a supportive environment, and we are working to achieve that by promoting dialogue between the Solomons and its regional partners.

New Zealand has learnt from these and other experiences in our region, that post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction will rarely follow a positive linear trend. There will inevitably be setbacks. Our engagement needs to be long term, acknowledging that recovery is often the work of at least a generation, and not of just a few years.

Failed states in any part of the world affect not only their own citizens. The work we are doing on stability with our Pacific partners is, we believe, just as relevant to the United States as it is to us. The South Pacific in the 21st Century is not quite how Rodgers and Hammerstein portrayed it in the 1958 film. We do welcome the helpful and supportive interest the United States has shown in the problems in Timor Leste and the Solomons.

The most recent challenge to democracy in our region has been in Fiji. The problems are not new—last year's military coup was the fourth in nineteen years. We are deeply concerned by the behaviour of the military regime which has installed itself in Suva. It has created a climate of fear, repressing freedom of expression and other basic human rights. Public confidence in key institutions of state has been undermined, and there is talk of elections not being held again for some years.

This behaviour is unacceptable. Fiji, the second largest Pacific Island country, with a well-developed tourism infrastructure, and as the regional hub, should be serving as a model for the region. New Zealand is not alone in this view—there has been a chorus of condemnation by all major players in the region. We have particularly appreciated our close co-ordination on Fiji with the United States, and the European Union.

The Pacific Islands Forum, at Foreign Minister level, has as recently as last Friday called on Fiji to commit to an election within 24 months, if not sooner. The international community has been asked to support the action taken by the region to restore constitutional order and democracy to Fiji. The Fiji military have been expressly enjoined by the Foreign Ministers to withdraw from their involvement in the interim government and to restore civilian rule. This is a call which Commander Bainimarama and those who have taken positions in his military government would do well to heed fully.

Recent years have seen a number of external partners increase their level of diplomacy in the Pacific, and we have welcomed the greater U.S. involvement. This country has longstanding linkages with the region, notably from its presence during the Second World War, as well as through ongoing constitutional ties with the Compact States in Micronesia, with American Samoa, and indeed with Hawaii.

The United States is a valued partner in the Pacific Islands Forum dialogue partner process, and it has considerable development expertise and resources to help the region address its challenges. New Zealand welcomes the recent decision by the Millennium Challenge Corporation to provide assistance for Vanuatu, and hopes to see the Corporation's involvement in the region eventually broaden. We also welcome the Administration's decision to designate 2007 as "The Year of the Pacific" and to expand its footprint across the region.

But it is not just in the South Pacific where New Zealand has been working closely with the United States. We have common interests in counter terrorism and counter proliferation in the broader Asia Pacific and internationally, and in trade policy too.

New Zealand deplores North Korea's development of a nuclear weapons capability. Its testing of a nuclear device and ballistic missiles last year was provocative and destabilising. The unanimous adoption of a Security Council Resolution against North Korea demonstrated that the world was united in condemning the regime's reckless actions.

New Zealand has been a strong supporter of the Six Party Talks on North Korea. We are all aware of how difficult this process has been. The action plan announced after the last Round is an encouraging first step along the way to our goal of full denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. New Zealand will support the action plan in whatever practical way it can at the appropriate time.

9/11, the Bali bombings, and other terrorist crimes around the world have underscored the risks posed by even small groups of extremists, including in South East Asia. New Zealand has been seeking to address the threat of terrorism by helping authorities in the region build their capacity to respond. We have also embarked on longer-term approaches such as promoting dialogue amongst religious leaders of many faiths.

As a small country, New Zealand benefits from participation in multilateral institutions—and there are a number to relate to in the Asia Pacific.

Our oldest regional relationship is with ASEAN, of which we have been a dialogue partner for more than thirty years.

ASEAN itself has been busy building networks, through its Plus Three relationship with China, Japan, and Korea, and has now brought those partners together with India, Australia, and New Zealand to form the East Asia Summit.

New Zealand was pleased to be included as a founding member at the first EAS, held in Kuala Lumpur in December 2005. We see its potential as both a forum for annual strategic dialogue, and as a vehicle to advance regional co-operation and integration. At the second Summit in the Philippines earlier this year, Leaders had a useful discussion on a number of key regional issues, including energy security. New Zealand hopes the East Asia Summit will contribute to building closer regional ties and a stronger East Asia community.

The establishment of the East Asia Summit has prompted some to raise a question mark about the place of APEC in the regional architecture. New Zealand does not see the two groupings as necessarily competing against one another, any more than, say, the Organisation of American States competes with APEC. Each has its own distinctive value. Asia trades more with external partners than it does amongst itself. APEC's trans-Pacific membership gives it a geo-political and economic importance all of its own—not least because APEC includes the United States.

New Zealand and the U.S. have always co-operated closely on APEC issues, and we welcome the strong U.S. commitment to the organisation. At last year's APEC Summit, the U.S. supported developing the concept of a Free Trade Agreement of the Asia-Pacific, which could reinvigorate some of APEC's original goals. Parallel to that the EAS has also decided to conduct a study into an EAS-wide FTA.

While working together on Asia Pacific regionalism is an important part of the New Zealand-U.S. bilateral relationship, there are many other dimensions to our friendship.

We both count amongst the world's oldest democracies, and the strong pioneering tradition of our two countries continues in the open, innovative societies we enjoy today. Embedded in our belief systems is the view that everyone deserves a fair go and opportunity to get ahead, regardless of their ethnicity, culture, faith, or socio-economic status. Those shared values matter.

We have fought alongside each other in virtually every major international conflict from and including the First World War. New Zealand took a different position on the invasion of Iraq. But we share the hope that peace and a better life will eventually prevail in that troubled land where so many Iraqis, Americans, and others have died.

Nor can New Zealand ever forget the United States support in the South Pacific in the Second World War, when so many young Americans came to New Zealand en route to battle on land and sea and in the air. Wellingtonians still remember the great armada of United States Marine transports departing in 1942. We didn't know where they were headed; but it turned out to be Guadalcanal—the pivotal U.S. victory on land in the Pacific and one of the war's momentous turning points.

Our close historical and military ties led to the formation of the ANZUS alliance between New Zealand, Australia, and the United States in the early 1950s. When New Zealand declared itself nuclear free in the 1980s, our operational involvement in ANZUS ceased. Unfortunately our relationship then came to be defined by what we disagreed on—primarily, the nuclear policy—rather than by our strong commonality of purpose in most endeavours.

But the nature of our co-operation changed again after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. New Zealand was shocked that terrorists had struck at the heart of the United States, and saw it as an attack against all humanity.

By late 2001, we were deploying our elite special forces to Afghanistan against the Al Qaeda elements being sheltered by the Taliban. In 2003, we were the first country after the U.S. and the UK to lead a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan. For our size, we have contributed substantially there, and to the global campaign against terrorism.

Last week we announced a further twelve month extension of our Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan, a small contribution of medical personnel in Kandahar, and a Royal New Zealand Navy frigate presence in the Gulf next year. We want to give a clear signal that we remain committed to supporting development and achieving greater stability in Afghanistan.

New Zealand has also drawn on its close relationship with Singapore to incorporate a Singapore Armed Forces contribution to our force in Afghanistan—a new development which we hope will help encourage others to join the international effort in support of Afghanistan.

We have also found strong common cause with the United States on the proliferation challenges facing the world today. We too are concerned about clandestine nuclear programmes. We have joined the Proliferation Security Initiative. We have implemented the United Nations Security Council Resolutions against North Korea and Iran.

The increased level of bilateral co-operation between New Zealand and the United States in recent years comes in the context of a broader effort by our two governments to strengthen the overall relationship. We have been talking more to each other rather than past each other, looking closely at where our interests coincide, and seeking to expand co-operation. This fresh approach to the relationship has seen some very positive dialogue and co-operation, in particular on Pacific issues, but also regarding regional security and the major global challenges of terrorism and non-proliferation.

On trade issues we work closely together in the Doha Round and in APEC. Like the United States, we want a high ambition outcome from the WTO Round. That means not only achieving far-reaching reform in agriculture, but also in non-agricultural goods and services. We also share with the U.S. a commitment to ensure that the WTO contributes to global sustainability—most obviously through the reduction and elimination of fisheries subsidies.

The New Zealand Government believes a bilateral Free Trade Agreement with the United States would be an excellent way to further develop our economic relationship. While we understand the current uncertainties about an extension to the Trade Promotion Authority, we look forward to a time when negotiations between us will be possible.

New Zealand and the United States are old friends. While the United States is an immensely powerful nation, New Zealand is a small country, possessing for the most part only soft power, but with a record of deploying to help troubled nations find a way forward. New Zealand and the United States, with our strong shared values, can work together to shape a better world, as we are. That, and our strong economic, scientific, education, and people to people ties, makes this relationship a very important one to New Zealand, which we seek to strengthen.

Thank you.