Peters upbeat about kingdom's 'progress'

Peters upbeat about kingdom's 'progress'

Special interview: New Zealand's deputy prime minister talked economics, climate change and Thailand's return to democracy during his visit to Bangkok.

New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters
New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters

Winston Peters, New Zealand's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs broke into a smile when asked about his impressions of the 52nd Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting (AMM) and other Related Meetings held in Bangkok from July 29-Aug 3.

"Impressions? Coming to Thailand which is now a democracy, and we'll do everything we possibly can to help them to carry on democracy," he replied during an exclusive interview with the Bangkok Post.

"Thailand has got a very serious reputation and respect in New Zealand because it has been dramatically successful in the past as an Asian economic tiger. It might be a long time ago, but if you think about that, it can still be the same in the future," he said.

He also stressed the importance New Zealand placed in the meeting by saying it was one of his "longest overseas trips". "I can't remember a trip to any country that has taken this long," he said.

Asked whether he expected anything new from the coalition government given that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has retained the position he held for five years after staging a military coup in 2014, Mr Peters replied:

"Actually, the whole of Eastern Europe changed in the 1990s when they went from communism to democracy. Democracy is progress. And when you see a little bit of change, you should celebrate," he said.

He refused to comment on specific issues in Thai politics but shared some guidance for politicians in general.

"Stability is what people want. Democratic stability is what populations are looking for because, in a stable environment where they can trust the sound security of their lives in the hands of politicians, it enables them to get on with the very arduous and difficult programme that they themselves have to follow."

Mr Peters used the same word, "progress", to describe his discussions with Asean and its partners.

At the ministerial meetings, both sides noted that the current Asean-New Zealand Plan of Action was nearly complete and a new version covering 2021–2025 would soon be drafted.

Asean is the fourth-largest dialogue partner of New Zealand with two-way trade worth US$11 billion (about 340 billion baht) in 2018, including $2.5 billion with Thailand.

The deputy prime minister also said he welcomed this year's theme for the meeting.

"'Partnership for Sustainability' is very much in line with what we in New Zealand have prioritised -- sustainability, climate change, security. Those sort of issues are important to us as they will be to every nation," he said.

He said New Zealand has a "legislative plan for the future", which includes zero-carbon legislation for 2030 and 2050.

"With respect to issues like climate change response ... no country is going to be exempt from the effects of it, whether it be highly exacerbated storms, flooding, uncertain weather patterns, significant maritime risk from high seas as a consequence of what looks to be the developing results from climate change. And then you've got the practical things like the appalling plastic debris," he said.

"In our economies, we will have to, as politicians and as governments, look at the very obvious in front of ourselves as this can't go on. We can't go on polluting our streams and our oceans with plastic waste," he said.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was also one of the hot issues as Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs Don Pramudwinai reiterated Asean's strong commitment to concluding the negotiations this year.

Mr Peters believes the negotiations can be concluded as planned, regardless of reports that China might want to expedite the RCEP negotiations and might propose the Asean Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea) go ahead first while India considers the matter. India, Australia and New Zealand are not in the Asean Plus Three pact.

"You know what a plough is? Behind an ox or behind a horse? Well, you can't plough backwards so we are going to be working all we can to have the 16 partnership arrangement on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement," he said.

"Well, those countries that are reluctant to join will learn in time that that's not wise forward planning. In the end, they will go far further and do much more for their people in large trading relationships that benefit all countries," he said.

While Mr Peters and more than 30 other foreign ministers were meeting in Bangkok, the capital was struck by a series of bomb attacks.

Mr Peters was asked what lessons his country had learned after the Christchurch mosque shootings on March 15.

"It was a terrible awakening ... that we were not immune to such a terrorist act. It was a shocking wake-up call for New Zealand and then we had to respond where we gave the terrorist no publicity whatsoever and focused on the needs of the victims," he said.

"All we have tried to do from the prime minister downward was to address the number one priority of that event, which was dealing sympathetically with the victims, one by one and as a community," he said adding that the government provided comprehensive packages to help the victims and their families.

"It will never make up for their loss but we did, I think, and are doing the best we possibly can as a country. And we didn't politicise it," he said.

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