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Diplomatic pivot from China to Europe, with all eyes on Ukraine

The Berlaymont building, which houses the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium.
The EU headquarters in Brussels, where Prime Minister Chris Hipkins is looking to strengthen NZ's ties with Europe. Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

Fresh from delicate diplomatic relations with China, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has arrived in Europe for a week dominated by the war in Ukraine and the NATO Leaders' Summit.

The day he landed in Belgium marked 500 days since Russia's invasion.

Some 700 kilometres from the Ukraine capital Kyiv, and Moscow just a bit further, the symbolic choice of Lithuania for the summit was no accident.

Despite invitations from President Volodymyr Zelensky, Hipkins has ruled out visiting Ukraine this week as a show of support, telling reporters the timing does not allow for it.

What is on the cards is signing the long sought after European Union (EU) free trade deal; another formal step towards making an agreement of significant value to New Zealand exporters a reality.

As Hipkins lands in Brussels, the international community has a sharp focus on the next steps for Ukraine; both the ongoing support in form of weapons, money and the staunch commitments to keep backing it, and the question of its potential membership in the military alliance.

In a controversial move, the United States has confirmed it will supply Ukraine with cluster bombs - widely condemned and banned by many countries. President Joe Biden defends it as necessary with Ukraine running out of ammunition in its offensive against Russia, a move bound to be a tense talking point among leaders in Vilnius later in the week.

Hipkins said New Zealand remained "opposed to cluster munitions acquisition, our position there has been well set out and we've expressed to the US through diplomatic channels our opposition to the use of cluster munitions".

"They're indiscriminate and they cause huge damage to innocent people potentially and they can have a long lasting effect ... where unexploded cluster munitions can cause long-term damage to innocent people."

It is an objection Hipkins said he would raise with Zelensky if they had the opportunity to speak at Vilnius later this week.

In the days between his visit to China and leaving for Europe, Hipkins delivered his first major foreign speech, describing the United States (a founding member of NATO) as "our long-standing friend and partner". Less effusive about the "complex" relationship with China, New Zealand's largest trading partner, where he noted the "number of different views".

Looking ahead to the NATO summit, Hipkins said he would express New Zealand's strong belief diplomacy was helpful in avoiding armed conflict.

"The world is changing, new threats are emerging, but I'm proud I will be there in the middle of it, representing New Zealand and our views and values."

He will not, however, visit Ukraine while in the neighbourhood.

Hipkins said "unfortunately" the logistics and timing of the trip meant "it wasn't possible" but without those constraints would have gone.

"It's just timing, it's a big commitment ... it takes several extra days and at this point, having been out of the country quite a lot already, I just can't commit to that," he said.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins in the Hutt Valley. 22 June 2023
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, New Zealand has drawn closer to NATO, with Dame Jacinda Ardern the first New Zealand prime minister to attend and speak at a NATO Leaders' Summit last year, where her comments about China sparked an angry reaction from Beijing.

NATO invited its Indo-Pacific partners (NZ, Australia, Korea and Japan) to attend in 2022. At the time, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the invitation was a "strong demonstration" of NATO's "close partnership" with like-minded countries in the Asia Pacific.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has participated in the last two NATO Foreign Ministers' Meetings. In March, NATO officials visited Wellington and suggested those partners could have their armed forces take part in NATO exercises and activities.

Victoria University professor of international relations and Centre for Strategic Studies director David Capie said even though there had been a long-standing relationship, the war in Ukraine had certainly changed things up.

New Zealand has had a "partnership agreement" with NATO since 2012 and was part of the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan until 2014, but Capie said there were moves to elevate that further with what was known as an "individually tailored partnership programme".

"It's more detailed, it's a longer document and what what this really tries to do is map out the issues of mutual interest, map out areas for possible cooperation that the partners can work on, going forward."

Those documents, however, were not public and Capie said the New Zealand one was still being negotiated.

"Although there's some talk that it might be concluded in time for the Vilnius Summit, but what we have heard from foreign minister Mahuta was that it will touch on things like support for the rules based order, cybersecurity, and climate change."

Speaking to reporters on his arrival in Brussels, Hipkins would only say NATO was "rearranging the way they structure their international partnerships with non-NATO members".

"At such time as there is something to say about what that means for New Zealand, I'll tell you all about it."

Greens foreign affairs spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman warned about New Zealand getting too close to what was a military alliance, and being drawn into an armed conflict on the other side of the world.

"New Zealand has always done best when we've been the arbiters of peace, coming from that kind of independence perspective, and of course we as friends and New Zealanders support the humanitarian aid efforts that New Zealand's been contributing to," she said.

"But it is alarming if we are coming closer to being involved in a regional armed conflict."

Leader of the Opposition, National's Christopher Luxon said, however, New Zealand should be involved.

"New Zealand has a set of values as a liberal democracy that are really important to us and it's important that we are part of an alliance and we partner with countries that have similar values to us as well, so it's great that he [Hipkins] is there."

First on the agenda - overnight New Zealand time - is the signing of the long-awaited free trade deal with the European Union, but there is still some way to go.

The deal will not come into force until the European Parliament has approved it and New Zealand has passed enabling legislation. Hipkins will encourage New Zealand's former leaders and diplomats to lobby for a speedy ratification, applying "full diplomatic weight" - but he was "optimistic" it will happen.

"You can never bank anything until it's absolutely done and dusted, but the signals are looking very good."

Under the deal struck last year in Brussels announced by Ardern and the President of the European Union Ursula von der Leyen, the value of New Zealand exports to the EU will increase by $1.8 billion a year by 2035.

Eventually, 97 percent of New Zealand's current exports to the EU will be duty-free, with more than 91 percent of tariffs removed the day the deal comes into effect. There will be immediate tariff elimination for all kiwifruit, wine, onions, apples, mānuka honey and manufactured goods, as well as for almost all fish and seafood, and other horticultural products.

One sticking point had been what are known as 'geographical indications'; names of products that come with a strong connection to a specific area, which the EU does not want producers outside of the region to use.

Agreement was made for New Zealand to keep using the names gouda, mozzarella, haloumi, brie and camembert.

Cheesemakers though will have to find an alternative name for the beloved Greek "feta" - Hipkins said New Zealand hadn't yet come up with one and they would have to put on "their creative thinking caps".

Standing beside him, Trade Minister Damien O'Connor was already on the job, offering his idea - "wheta".

"I don't know ... let's be creative."