John Key back among movers, shakers

JOHN KEY: In Asia this week.
JOHN KEY: In Asia this week.

As Prime Minister John Key sweeps into Phnom Penh in a motorcade today, he will be spared the sight of beggars, street urchins, prostitutes and peddlers.

For ahead of the twin Pacific power forums, Asean and EAS, Cambodia's leaders have swept the streets of the human detritus left by decades of the Khmer Rouge, authoritarian rule under President Hun Sen, and abject poverty.

Locals have been barred from leaving rubbish outside their homes, and human rights protesters, objecting to violent land grabs and punishment killings, intimidated. A reported 10,000 security forces have been deployed to the capital.

Mr Key will first mingle with other world power-brokers tonight at a gala dinner on Diamond Island. Tomorrow, presidents and prime ministers will gather at Peace Palace for the 7th East Asia Summit.

Interest in the international pow-wow has heightened since re-elected United States President Barack Obama confirmed he will attend, intensifying his "pivot" to Asia foreign policy.

Other heavyweights include China's Wen Jiabao and Australia's Julia Gillard, both of whom will have formal talks with Mr Key.

Topics under discussion will be maritime security, energy, education, disaster management and tackling malaria.

There are fears a simmering spat over sovereignty claims in the South China Sea will overshadow events. The US and China are at odds, and an aggressive Beijing has reacted badly to Hillary Clinton's call for diplomacy, branding the US a "sneaky troublemaker".

Leaders and diplomats want to put the focus firmly on trade and the world's stuttering economy. The bloc will tomorrow launch the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. This free trade pact would encompass 16 countries and a quarter of the world economy. And, unlike the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), deal it would include super-economies China and India.

Its champions sell it as more flexible and realistic than the TPP. But TPP is into a 15th round of negotiations - and RCEP is yet to hold its first meeting. Insiders also say Obama is "focused" on TPP and has the potential to deliver results next year.

Mr Key says RCEP is an opportunity to broaden trade links with Asia. "But we would acknowledge it's currently some way behind the level of engagement that is taking place in TPP."

The TPP talks strive toward a tightly negotiated agreement, (although intellectual property rights are a sticking point) whereas the RCEP approach appears to be more collegial. However, domestic politics in India and Korea have seen politicians struggle to sew up other FTAs - making a more complex deal doubtful.

Mr Key says New Zealand doesn't have to choose. "It's not an either or, we can do both - and we'll look to do both."

He will make a beeline for Mr Obama. Although he has not requested a formal meeting, Mr Key is anticipating plenty of opportunities to catch up - and the hot topic will be the TPP timetable. Auckland hosts the next round of negotiations next month.

"I think it's going to be a very interesting meeting. It comes at a time when the international economy is starting to falter again. "It's obvious the pressure is building up in Europe, President Obama faces a very tricky situation to navigate the fiscal cliff and China's growth rate has been considerably slower this year than in previous years," Mr Key said.

"I reckon it is going to be a very interesting time to take the temperature of leaders and see how they think 2013 will play out."

Unlike their last meeting, in Seoul in March, the two premiers won't be staying at the same hotel. "I have a good relationship with him and my experience is we will have plenty of time to have a good chat."

Mr Key also wants time with Korea's outgoing President Lee Myung-bak as well as Premier Wen Ji Bao. "This is their last summit, so that will be a good opportunity."

Foreign Minister Murray McCully isn't attending the EAS - mainly because he expects the focus to be on trade. "Normally you would expect the South China Seas to be the major feature of the discussion, but I think there is going to be quite a solid attempt to lift the level of focus on the trade front. And there is also quite a strong desire to drop the temperature of the South China Seas discussion."

Mr Key was unaware of the "collection" of street dwellers. "It's not unusual. I mean I've been to other Apecs and East Asia Summits where they have done their best to put a brave face on."

He will raise Cambodia's gross human rights abuse with the long term president. "That's a more serious issue, we are more hopeful about the speed of progress in Myanmar than in Cambodia."

But his protests are likely to fall on deaf ears - villagers who painted an SOS message on their tin roofs for Mr Obama last week were ordered to remove it and arrested. The 400 families are to be evicted from their homes next to Phnom Penh airport so the government can enlarge the runway.

The Dominion Post