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The Interview: New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key

“For the first time in New Zealand’s history, the engine of world economic activity has shifted to our geographic region, the Asia-Pacific.”

Zachary Keck

The Diplomat's Zachary Keck spoke with New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key concerning nuclear security, Afghanistan, relations with the United States and China as well as the Trans Pacific Partnership.

New Zealand is often seen as “punching above its weight”. One area where this is certainly true is on nuclear non-proliferation issues. What are some of the things your government has been doing as part of nuclear security summits, and do you anticipate a future for this forum after the initial four years are over in 2014?

New Zealanders are proud of this country’s long record of advocacy on nuclear disarmament, and our strong support for the vision of a nuclear-weapon-free world.  New Zealand views nuclear security as part of our broader and longstanding commitment to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. 

We contribute regularly to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Nuclear Security Fund.  We are an active member of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism and we funded a workshop by the World Institute for Nuclear Security on securing radioactive sources in South East Asia in early 2012.  Since 2004 we have provided over NZ$6 million towards G8 Global Partnership projects aimed particularly at securing nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union. 

The Nuclear Security Summit process has been useful to focus high-level international attention on this important issue and to build an international consensus on the steps needed to combat the threat posed by unsecured nuclear material.  It’s not yet clear what the future of the process will be but we hope that it will lead in time to a more coherent international nuclear security framework and a strengthened role for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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You have said that the most difficult decision in your tenure as Prime Minister was recommitting troops to Afghanistan. Then, in announcing an accelerated drawdown of troops stationed in Bamiyan Province last August, you noted the new date of withdrawal was needed to airlift the troops out of the area in light of the dangers of traveling to Kabul by road. With the U.S. and other NATO-led ISAF forces now also accelerating their drawdown, do you still believe the war has been worth fighting? Where do you see Afghanistan in say the next five to ten years?

International headlines on Afghanistan, which primarily focus on security incidents and fatalities, make it easy to forget what has been achieved since the international community became involved there following the events of 11 September 2001.  The truth is that Afghanistan has made tremendous progress over the past eleven years.  Most importantly, the country is no longer a haven for international terrorists. Al Qaeda, a substantial threat to international security in 2001 and the reason for our initial military involvement, has been significantly weakened and largely driven from Afghanistan.   Furthermore, with the assistance of the ISAF coalition, the Afghanistan National Security Forces are becoming increasingly capable of continuing the fight against the Taliban after the ISAF mission concludes next year.

Thanks in part to international efforts, Afghanistan also now has a functioning, albeit Afghan-style, representative democracy.  State institutions are in place, and there is a thriving civil society not seen in Afghanistan for a generation.  Despite ongoing challenges, millions of Afghans now enjoy human rights they were denied by the Taliban. In short, quality of life for ordinary Afghans has significantly improved. 

While New Zealand, which has been present in Bamyan Province for ten years, will be withdrawing our PRT in April, we leave a lasting legacy. In the Hazarajat region, which includes Bamyan, 84% of people in last year's Asia Foundation survey said that they rarely or never fear for their own or family's safety.  The PRT has also directly contributed to an increase in local capacity and quality of life.  New Zealand’s role was gratefully acknowledged by the leadership and people of Bamyan during my visit to the province in May 2010. 

These gains in Bamyan and across the country as a whole have not come without cost.  New Zealand has had ten fatalities since it began its involvement in Afghanistan; for many other ISAF nations, the toll is much higher.  Those sacrifices have not been in vain.  Yes, significant challenges remain.  But it is important to remember just how far Afghanistan has come since 2001, and what has been achieved.

Challenges remain, but we believe that with good leadership, transparency and accountability, the Afghan Government should be able to sustain the gains of the last ten years.  The international community, including New Zealand, will continue to do what it can to support these efforts, but ultimately Afghanistan’s fate rests with its people.    

A major hallmark of New Zealand's foreign policy under your leadership has been enhancing your country’s strategic partnership with the U.S. through the signing of the Wellington and Washington Declarations in 2010 and 2012 respectively. In what ways have these agreements expanded strategic and defense cooperation between the two countries and what are the primary goals of the bilateral relationship moving forward?

The relationship between New Zealand and the United States has never been better.

As a result of the Wellington Declaration, signed on the occasion of Secretary Clinton’s visit to New Zealand in 2010, there has been a substantial increase in the number of Ministerial and senior officials meetings, including my own visit to the White House in 2011.  We are cooperating on practical projects in the Pacific, including unexploded ordinance and maritime surveillance, and providing humanitarian and civic assistance to Pacific communities.

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I was particularly delighted that Secretary Clinton attended the Post Forum Dialogue in the Cook Islands in 2012 – the first time a U.S. Secretary of State has attended such an important regional event.  I would like to personally acknowledge the role Hillary Clinton played in transforming the relationship between our two countries. She is a great friend of New Zealand and a powerful advocate for our bilateral relationship.

The Washington Declaration, signed in June 2012, sets out areas of closer bilateral defense and security cooperation, including increasing cooperation in the South Pacific, building New Zealand’s amphibious capacity and its capacity in peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

We were pleased to host U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in New Zealand last year – the first visit here by a U.S. Secretary of Defense in over 25 years. Secretary Panetta described his visit as marking a “new era” between the two countries.  His decision to lift the formal restrictions on military staff talks and New Zealand ship visits to U.S. ports represented a positive step forward in defense relations. We look forward to building on this agenda of cooperation with Secretary Panetta's successor

Moving on to trade, the year you became Prime Minister, China surpassed the U.S. as New Zealand’s second largest trading partner and New Zealand and China signed and ratified a free trade agreement (FTA) to be implemented over a number of years. How do you foresee New Zealand’s economic relations with China maturing in the years and decades ahead?

I am very optimistic about the future of the New Zealand-China economic relationship. 

China’s growing role in the world economy is positive for New Zealand.  For the first time in New Zealand’s history, the engine of world economic activity has shifted to our geographic region, the Asia-Pacific. Last year marked forty years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and China.  In that time the relationship has developed from limited beginnings to one of broad and substantial connections that is among New Zealand’s most important.

The trade relationship has grown strongly in the past few years, supported by the China New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (FTA).  China is now New Zealand’s second-largest trading partner after Australia, our largest source of imports and our second largest and fastest-growing export market.  New Zealand is still the only developed country with a comprehensive FTA with China.  We have exported more to China in the years since 2008 when the FTA entered into force than in the previous 20 years combined. China is New Zealand’s largest source of overseas students and our second largest (and fastest growing) source of tourists.  This growth is remarkable given the context of the global economic crisis.

During my visit to China in 2010, Premier Wen Jiabao and I agreed on the goal of doubling two-way trade to $20 billion by 2015.  We remain broadly on track to reach this goal, with two-way trade in the year to September 2012 increasing by 8.2 percent to $14.16 billion – up 66% on the levels in 2008 when the FTA entered into force. 

New Zealand’s exports of high quality dairy, meat, fish, kiwifruit and wine are significant but there is potential for significant further growth.  Continuing growth in both residential and infrastructure investment should also mean substantial demand for New Zealand wood products. Growing Chinese incomes should also boost services exports to China.  More households can afford to come on holidays to New Zealand and send their children to New Zealand for education.

Speaking of free trade agreements, last month Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations were held in Auckland. As an original member of the TPP, is New Zealand happy with the progress these talks have been making? Will the TPP be your focus moving forward or do you intend to concentrate on concluding new bilateral FTAs like the one you’ve discussed with South Korea?

New Zealand was pleased to host Round 15 of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations in December 2012, when we welcomed new participants Mexico and Canada to the table.  TPP is the most ambitious FTA negotiation currently under way in the Asia‑Pacific region.  Negotiations are at an advanced stage, and the process enjoys sustained political will from the highest levels. TPP Leaders and Trade Ministers have reiterated their expectations for high-quality, standard-setting outcomes, particularly on comprehensive duty free access to TPP partners’ goods markets, elimination of tariffs and removal of other barriers to trade and investment. 

While TPP will assume very high priority for New Zealand this year, we will continue to pursue a wide-ranging brief in our trade policy efforts.  A country like New Zealand can’t afford to put all its eggs in one basket.   For 20 years now we have sought to conclude high quality, WTO consistent agreements with many partners.  We won’t slow down here – we have on-going negotiations with Korea, India and the Russia/Kazakhstan and Belarus Customs Union amongst others.  Completing these will remain high on our to-do list.  I was also pleased to join Leaders from ASEAN, Australia, China, Korea, India and Japan in November last year to launch the new Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership FTA negotiations, which will formally begin in the first part of this year.