17 Nov 2023

Labour's Damien O'Connor sole Kiwi face at APEC

12:00 pm on 17 November 2023
Outgoing Trade Minister Damien O'Connor at APEC 2023.

Photo: Supplied

Outgoing Trade Minister Damien O'Connor is talking up the trade positives and skirting the geo-political negatives at the APEC summit.

The 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) gathering in San Francisco has come to its sharp point.

The week-long gathering is taking place behind a steel screen of fences and tight security in a downtown convention centre that has been the the focus of a multitude of protests from various groups.

O'Connor has been the sole New Zealand face at the summit, chairing the sideline discussions of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade group.

He has also been engaging with the new US-led Indo Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), while representing the country's foreign policy stance on issues such as Ukraine and the Middle East conflict, mindful of the incoming National-led government's views.

O'Connor said he had not been given any direct instructions on what stance to take and had continued the broad consensual line of the outgoing Labour-led government.

"There are not too many areas where I think there'll be a major shift in direction, I'm hoping anyway, by the new government.

"So we're moving forward as a Labour-led government of course, consulting through the caretaker period with anything that comes to APEC, but basically it's been consensus and consistent," O'Connor said.

At least two APEC members, Malaysia and Indonesia, have been pushing for the final statement to include reference to the Middle East conflict, and the humanitarian issues it has raised.

O'Connor said New Zealand's position remained that conflict would not resolve anything and military action needed to stop as soon as possible.

Trade to the fore

O'Connor said New Zealand was enthusiastic about the 14-nation IPEF, which the US has championed as a way to promote trade in the Indo-Pacific region, and has been seen as a counter to China's policies.

However, the administration of US President Joe Biden has stumbled in getting trade access into the IPEF structure. India objected to provisions about trade access, and there was pushback from domestic politicians on its impact on US industries.

IPEF has agreed on cooperation on clean energy, anti-corruption measures, and supply chain resilience.

O'Connor was optimistic the talks would help the cause of closer trade ties with India, which is a notable exception in New Zealand's network of free trade deals .

"Anything that builds connections and relationships, it may not be the traditional agreement that we've always seen in the past, but we are building relationships with India.

"Partnerships. .. will take us forward and not just open goods access," he said.

Meanwhile, demonstrations continued aplenty, with Falun Gong anti-Chinese protesters lining the street as Biden's motorcade sped to the APEC venue.

And a major artery in the region, the Bay Bridge, was closed for several hours as about 200 pro-Palestine protesters drove on to the bridge, parked their cars and threw keys into the bay, as they called for a ceasefire and humanitarian help in Gaza.

About 70 were arrested and 29 cars towed away in the noisy but peaceful demonstration, which has caused widespread commuter disruption.

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