OPINION: There's nothing like visiting a brace of economic giants to remind New Zealanders how small they blip on the radar and how big the economic challenges are out there.
John Key returns today from a six-day trip to Russia and Japan, having pushed hard on free trade and paraded New Zealand's credentials as - in his words - “the poster boy” for open markets.
But the results were at best frustrating and economically sobering. At the Apec meeting, on the soulless Russky Island, two sets of talks were cancelled after a no-show by Hong Kong and the early return of Julia Gillard to Australia after her father's death.
Kept waiting for two hours by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr Key failed to win a hoped-for final push on free trade talks. The best he got was a promise from Mr Putin to consult his partners and get back to New Zealand - though an invitation to Moscow next year was interpreted as a hopeful sign.
Meanwhile, no Barack Obama meant no summit of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) leaders. A deal is unlikely before late 2013, with Japan in limbo, struggling to overcome domestic opposition.
To muddy the waters China is flexing its muscles as the biggest economy in a proposed rival trade bloc covering Asean members plus six other nations, including New Zealand.
At the three-day summit, Apec leaders discussed how continuing global economic woes had sparked a rise in protectionism, especially in South America. In her briefing, IMF boss Christine Lagarde said global growth would slip below 4 per cent this year, despite a relatively optimistic outlook for China. On top of fears about Europe, there are real concerns about Brazil, one of the four big emerging economies.
For his part Mr Key held to the line with Russia and Japan that New Zealand wanted a portfolio of trade deals, as long as they were high quality. It was not so much seeking big new markets as trying not to leave all its eggs “in one Chinese basket” - his way of downplaying the threat to New Zealand agricultural exports.
As usual, he remained upbeat and his time in Miyagi, visiting the scene of the 2011 tsunami and thanking urban rescue workers for their efforts in Christchurch, was warm and positive amid the sadness. But the shared sense of loss can go only so far. And the magnitude of the difficulties facing New Zealand was never better illustrated than on his final day in Tokyo.
Mr Key launched a new advertising push based around the Hobbit movies, themed as New Zealand “100% Middle-earth”.
The aim is to halt or reverse the catastrophic fall in visitor traffic from Japan, but it was tempting to read into the movie titles a commentary on his trip; “An Unexpected Journey”, “The Desolation of Smaug” and, in the end, simply “There and Back Again”.
It was 22 months ago to the day that Mr Key, as Prime Minister and Tourism Minister, stood up in Tokyo to announce a similar move to boost tourist traffic. Then he lamented the fall in Japanese visitor numbers from 180,000 in 2000 to 88,000 in 2010.
Two years later they stand at 67,072, a drop of 12 per cent this year.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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