Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on President Biden’s Meeting with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand
12:50 P.M. EDT
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you. And thanks everyone for joining. Sorry for the delay. The meeting went a little bit over.
So just to quickly go over the ground rules for this: This call is on background, attributable to “senior administration officials.” The contents of this call are embargoed until the end of the call.
For your awareness and not for reporting, our speaker on the call is [senior administration official]. And he’s going to have some short remarks at the top, and then we’ll take some questions.
So, [senior administration official], over to you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great, thank you very much. And I appreciate all of you for joining. The meeting went, actually, significantly longer than expected, and so I apologize for those of you who were kept waiting. And so, we’ll try and keep this relatively short and take some questions.
The President and the Prime Minister met for well over an hour. The conversation was very warm, very direct, and there was a great understanding between the two of them, as you would expect. And there really was discussion about the shared vision for the Indo-Pacific and the importance, in particular, of stepping up engagement with the Pacific Island states. But really, discussion covered the broader Indo-Pacific region and the world.
The two leaders discussed the many ways in which we work together already on a variety of regional and global issues, but also ways in which we can step up our cooperation, in particular, to support the Pacific Island states as they face tremendous challenges from a variety of fronts — including, obviously, recovering from COVID and the economic impacts of the COVID pandemic, as well as climate change and other challenges.
They discussed the work that the United States and New Zealand do together on a range of issues, including how we cooperate on addressing common challenges in the broader Indo-Pacific region, including — and how we’re working together on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which the President announced last week in Tokyo; as well as dealing with and addressing the climate crisis — ways in which we share visions for where the region — what the region can be doing to better support some of those vulnerable countries that are dealing with challenges caused by the climate crisis.
They also, as you would expect, discussed countering terrorism and dealing with radicalization, and ways in which that has fed violence, and the nexus with online as well as offline issues.
And I think that they also had some fairly detailed discussions about the importance of in-person engagement with the Pacific Island leaders, and the importance of continue — the United States working closely with New Zealand and other partners as we continue to step up our efforts to engage more effectively in the Pacific.
And they — there was also discussion of the shared history and shared perspectives and the ways in which United States and New Zealand have worked together over the years to deal with common challenges.
I think that the — you know, things that really stood out were just the warmth, the intimacy, the alignment on a variety of issues, the shared concern about the challenges caused by extremism, and particularly the online nexus, but more broadly, how to deal with the challenges of domestic violence and — or — sort of violence and terrorism domestically as well as internationally.
I think that the context for this is obviously the administration’s focus on the Indo-Pacific, which I’m sure all of you have seen both from the recent engagements in Washington with the ASEAN — the U.S.-ASEAN special summit, as well as the President’s trip to Korea and Japan last week, the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and the Quad meeting.
I think the discussion with Prime Minister Ardern really further highlighted the breadth and depth of the shared concerns about changes and challenges in the region and the fact that New Zealand continues to be a very close and very important U.S. partner.
I think that this is also in the context of — the fact that the United States is a Pacific nation, and the region remains an enduring foreign policy priority for the United States.
And then, you know, in addition to the examples I just cited, we’ve been working on stepping up our engagement in the Pacific and doing this in close — with close consultation with New Zealand, as well as other important partners and Pacific Island states themselves.
You will have seen that Secretary Blinken announced — visited Fiji in February. He was the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit there in 36 years. While there, he rolled out the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, which we think — you know, it was a very important signal to do that in the Pacific and in Fiji.
He also announced that the U.S. intends to open an embassy in the Solomon Islands in Honiara and that the U.S. is working to expand our diplomatic footprint and presence throughout the region and to better harness and work with the programs that we do have that are both regional and global, as well as our direct engagements in the region, and to work more closely with partners.
Last year in August 2021, the President became the first U.S. president to ever address the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting. And this was — the meeting was remote but the President took great satisfaction in that address, which we believe strengthened the engagement and relationship with the region.
And I think that as part of our focus on the Pacific, we recognize the tremendous importance of concluding negotiations with the freely associated states of the Republic of Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau. And in order to do that and to be able to regain momentum on that and to try and conclude these agreements which we believe are vital for the United States as well as for the countries concerned, the President appointed Ambassador Joseph Yun as Special Presidential Envoy for Compact Negotiations. And this was only the third Special Presidential Envoy designation in the administration.
Also recognizing the tremendous demand and something that New Zealand and other countries have been very clear in the importance of trying to address this challenge of trying to provide better maritime domain awareness of capability throughout the region but particularly in the Pacific, we announced the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness at the Quad meeting in Tokyo last week.
This program and this partnership will offer a near real-time, integrated and cost-effective maritime domain awareness picture and will transform the ability of partners in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean region to fully monitor the waters in their exclusive economic zones, which we believe both helps them in terms of their own interests but also helps strengthen the ability to deliver a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The administration is working closely also with traditional partners in the region — including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, France, the United Kingdom — on climate, maritime security, infrastructure, education, and post-COVID economic recovery issues.
And you may have seen that, just last week, we announced Fiji as the 14th founding partner for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which will help set the rules for the digital economy; strengthen supply chains and lower costs, as well as tackling corruption that drags down our economies, our companies, and our workers; and then try and work more effectively to address the challenge of climate change and decarbonization while also trying to seize the economic potential benefits that come from that.
You will be seeing a joint statement that goes into more detail on the U.S.-New Zealand partnership and the issues that we’ve been working on as part of this visit. And I think that reflects the extraordinary closeness and — of the relationship, the progress has been made over the years, and the fact that New Zealand remains a very close and important partner to the United States, and that the leaders have a very, very close relationship that is really based on shared perspectives on the world, as well as an understanding of the importance of working together.
So, with that, let me take some questions.
MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, [senior administration official].
Q Hi, thank you for taking my call. I have two questions about the meeting. The first one is: Did the leaders discuss this economic and security deal that has been attempted by China and, so far, rejected by the Pacific Island countries? Is this something that the U.S. is concerned about? What are you planning to do to increase engagement in the region beyond what you’ve just outlined?
And then, the second question is: Did the leaders discuss New Zealand’s military support for Ukraine? I understand, so far, they’ve given support for training soldiers. Did the Prime Minister indicate whether — or did the President encourage the Prime Minister to consider sending heavy weapons to Ukraine as well?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you very much. So, on the first question, the two leaders discussed the importance of our respective engagement in the Pacific, and they discussed the challenges that the region faces, including the climate crisis as well as recovering from COVID.
They discussed the — they did not get into specific details about efforts by other countries, but they did discuss the importance of working together to present an affirmative vision for the region, as well as solidifying the traditional areas of cooperation and building new ones.
In the context of Ukraine, there — they did not get into specifics. There was — the President expressed great appreciation for New Zealand’s strong support for Ukraine in the face of the brutal Russian invasion and the importance of working together, as well as with the rest of the international community, to ensure support for Ukraine.
The President made clear his appreciation of the very significant steps that Ukraine is — that New Zealand has taken for this, and that this reflects very strong leadership on the part of the Prime Minister.
Q Hi. Yes, hi. Thank you very much. I just wanted to follow up on that last question and ask whether there — you know, there are any specific plans to step — you know, when the United States talks about the need to step up its game and for its allies and partners to do the same. Were there any specific steps that were discussed?
On the — also, on (inaudible), it seems that he was quite disparaging about IPEF (inaudible) China. I was wondering if you can comment on that.
And also, about the New Zealand Prime Minister’s view that while IPEF is all very well, it would be better if the United States rejoined what is now CPTPP.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great, thank you. So I think that — a couple of things. First, with regard to IPEF, you know, we believe that this is a very significant step. And we are very pleased at the extraordinarily strong interest from throughout the region. It is — you know, fro- — I think, to us, it is interesting that, on one hand, that we have heard some disparagement of IPEF from China and then also some complaints that it doesn’t incl- — that China hasn’t been invited.
I think that our view is that IPEF is about working together to support a free and open Indo-Pacific, and that it is — that it is open to countries who support a free and open Indo-Pacific. And that we are very pleased — there has been — the interest that there has been from so many countries to join and that — that have been the chosen to be founding members.
I think that, you know, we also remember that, you know, there was similar disparagement at one point about the Quad, and the Quad turned out not to be (inaudible). And that, you know, we are interested in seeing how things evolve with the perceptions of IPEF.
I think that what we are pleased by is that the countries that have — that are participating clearly are very enthusiastic about the basic principles behind it.
With regard to discussions on CPTPP, I think the Prime Minister has made her views very clear. I think in this meeting, there was discussion about the importance of economic engagement. And I would note that we’re announcing the resumption of the TIFA discussions between the U.S. — or consultations between the U.S. and New Zealand.
I think that there is — there’s also — you know, she was very clear in her support and New Zealand’s — how pleased New Zealand is to be a founding member of IPEF and the importance of affirmative U.S. economic engagement in the region.
I think that the —
MODERATOR: [Senior administration official], are you still there? [Senior administration official], are you still there?
OPERATOR: Let me check. We may have lost him. He has disconnected from the call.
MODERATOR: All right. Could we just pause for a few minutes? Let me try to see what happened here.
And he is back.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I’m back. So sorry about that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I think that on the — on the other questions about the economic partnership, I think that the two leaders did discuss the importance of broader economic engagement in the region and the importance of continuing to work very closely together.
I would note that we’re very grateful for New Zealand’s advice as we worked on the development of IPEF. nd New Zealand’s, you know, extreme sophistication and experience on regional economic and trade issues was particularly valuable in that.
So, I’m sorry. I apologize again for getting cut off. So hopefully that answered your question.
Q Thanks very much. So, two sperate questions. The first: When you were talking before, you said they did not discuss specific efforts from other countries. Was that in relation to China?
And secondly, with the Maritime Awareness Initiative out of the Quad, was there any sort of indication that New Zealand might be invited into such an agreement?
And also, just on the AUKUS arrangement between Australia and the U.S., was there any discussion around how New Zealand might be able to have some involvement in arrangements like that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, let me start off on — you know, again, there was a general discussion about the challenges that the Pacific region faces. There weren’t — there was not a specific discussion about any specific initiatives that are coming out from any other countries. But I think there’s a general awareness of the need to make sure that we step up our efforts and our cooperation.
In terms of what that means, I think that it is about several different things. One is expanding U.S. engagement in the region. And as I mentioned, there was discussion about the importance of in-person meetings at the leader level.
There also was a discussion about expanding U.S. diplomatic presence and also looking to step up the various types of engagement on things having to do with climate, recovery from COVID, preparation for next pandemic, and, I think, a great deal of commonality of views.
So I think that in terms of the questions about the maritime domain awareness initiatives, I think that at this point that — we did not have discussions — or there was not a specific discussion about how New Zealand is going to play into that, but it was very clear that New Zealand is very supportive of the initiative.
In terms of AUKUS, there was no specific discussion about AUKUS itself, but this is something that is discussed in the — but part of that is because it had been addressed in the joint statement. And I think that there is a — I think an awareness of the potential that AUKUS offers as a platform for perhaps opening up other apertures for cooperation in the future.
And I think that more broadly, there was support for the importance of greater engagement by outside partners, as we see in AUKUS, in terms of trying to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Q Thank you. Did the two leaders discuss gun control? And in particular, did the Prime Minister urge President Biden to embrace the gun buyback programs and a ban on assault weapons like New Zealand has done in the last few years? And could you just give us a sense of what that conversation was like if — if they did discuss the Uvalde situation?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Look, they discussed domestic extremism and the challenges that poses. And the Prime Minister discussed the Christchurch Call to Action and the responses that New Zealand had done after the tragic attack in Christchurch.
They just — they both share a very strong concern about the slaughter of innocents that these kinds of extremist attacks pose. There was — she did not urge the President to any specific course of action, but there was discussion about the challenges that these — and the horrible cost of these kinds of attacks.
I think that there is a — you know, she was — she offered her sympathy, and the President appreciated that very much. It was very clear that, you know, she has, as you would expect, a particular understanding of the extraordinarily difficult challenges that these kinds of attacks pose both at the — you know, in terms of the actual victims, but then, more broadly, the longer-term consequences for survivors and first responders.
So, it was a very — it was a very powerful discussion. But it was not one where she urged a particular course of action on the President, but rather expressed a broad understanding for what the United States is going through.
MODERATOR: Great. All right, well, thanks everyone for joining.
As a reminder, this call was on background, attributable to a “senior administration official.” And the embargo on the contents of the call will lift as soon as the call is over.
Thanks for joining. If you have any more questions, let me know.
1:12 P.M. EDT