New Zealand’s relationship may be about to change – The Diplomat
As New Zealand’s highly successful Olympic campaign in Tokyo draws to a close, it’s easy to be just as positive and optimistic about the state of New Zealand’s broader relationship with Japan.
If New Zealand’s trade relations were Olympic sports, Japan would miss out on a medal – but not by much. Japan is New Zealand’s fifth largest trading partner, behind China, Australia, the United States and the EU. There is a healthy trade surplus in favor of New Zealand. Fruits, dairy and aluminum currently top the list of New Zealand exports, while tourism and education were also major contributors before COVID-19. In return, Japanese exports to New Zealand are dominated by vehicles.
The trading relationship is only expected to strengthen over time as the incremental benefits accumulate under the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). For example, tariffs on New Zealand beef exports will gradually drop to 9% by 2033, from 38.5% currently. Tariffs on almost all cheeses will be eliminated entirely, as will those on seafood.
Even before these gains, the relationship with Japan was one of the New Zealanders’ absolute favorites. In the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s latest “Perceptions of Asia” poll, released in June, 71% of people thought Japan was friendly towards New Zealand. It was by far the most popular Asian and non-English speaking country. The next countries on the list, Germany and South Korea, achieved “usability” scores of 59% and 51% respectively.
A long tradition of sporting and cultural exchanges partly explains the positive feeling towards Japan. Simon Draper, director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, points out that working holiday visas, a strong New Zealand involvement in Japan’s JET English Teacher Program, and a long list of sister city relationships are just some of the determining factors.
Rugby diplomacy helps too. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Finance Minister Grant Robertson and then Foreign Secretary Winston Peters all made largely successful official visits to Japan in 2019 to coincide with the country’s hosting of the Cup of the rugby world.
Ardern’s rare diplomatic blunder – when she said China instead of Japan – didn’t appear to cause lasting damage. Peters was even invited to Japan again as a special guest at the G-20 foreign ministers meeting, which was held a month later.
Japanese popular culture serves as the background music for the relationship. David Capie, who wrote a report on New Zealand-Japan relations for the Asia New Zealand Foundation in 2019, highlighted the rise of Japanese culture in New Zealand from the 1980s – including karaoke, manga, Pokémon and sushi. According to him, Japan is a “soft superpower”.
Interpersonal relations between New Zealand and Japan have also played a major role. Jacinda Ardern herself is a good example – she learned Japanese and hosted a Japanese exchange student when she was at school.
From a New Zealand perspective, the past few years have also largely neutralized two main areas of tension: trade and whaling. Japan’s decision to join the CPTPP, which took effect in late 2018, resolved major trade disputes. Whaling has also ceased to be the obstacle it once was, after Japan stopped whaling in the Southern Ocean in 2018.
But New Zealand’s relationship with Japan could be about to get much more complicated.
Under Abe Shinzo, Japanese Prime Minister from 2012 to 2020, Japan sought to become a bigger global player. Abe’s surprise decision to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations in 2013 – against fierce national opposition – was one of the first signs of this new engagement. Another came in 2015, when Japan’s parliament voted – despite numerous public protests – to allow the country’s military to fight abroad, provided certain conditions are met. This move was previously unthinkable, thanks to Japan’s pacifist waiver of war constitution that went into effect in 1947. Abe even tried – but ultimately failed – to change the constitution itself.
Tokyo’s relations with Beijing might have been expected to deteriorate due to Abe’s policies. After all, Abe was also the architect of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” doctrine – later enthusiastically adopted by Australia and the United States – which can only be understood as a direct challenge to the domination of the United States. China in the region. But surprisingly, Sino-Japanese relations gradually improved during Abe’s tenure. Regular high-level exchanges helped ease tensions. Abe paid an official visit to China in 2018 and even invited Xi Jinping to Japan for a highly symbolic state visit (although COVID-19 delayed the trip indefinitely and Abe left office before the visit can be reprogrammed).
Essentially, Abe has taken the “tightrope” approach of keeping both the West and China happy. It is a strategy that New Zealand itself is very familiar with.
But Japan now has a new prime minister – and the country’s relations with China are deteriorating. Suga Yoshihide, Japan’s new ruler, doesn’t have the personal connection Abe had with Xi – and he seems to chart a more confrontational path.
Last month, an annual Japanese Defense Ministry white paper focused on China as its main national security threat. For the first time, he also warned of a crisis in Taiwan. Another clear signal – or a very unfortunate blunder – came in June, when Suga angered Beijing by calling Taiwan a country.
Suga has aligned Japan even more closely with the United States’ recent tougher stance on China.
After a rare joint visit by the Secretary of State for Defense and Secretary of State to Tokyo in March, a joint statement by the United States and Japan explicitly addressed “China’s behavior” in no uncertain terms. and underscored the United States’ “unwavering commitment” to defend Japan. To underscore this point, the statement specifically supported Japan’s claim to the disputed Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.
Also in March, Suga joined the inaugural leaders’ summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or “Quad” for short) with his counterparts from Australia, India and the United States. While Abe himself had relaunched the Quad, it was the first time that a summit had been held at leaders’ level. It was another highly symbolic challenge for China.
Where do these changes leave New Zealand? Since the signing of the CPTPP, relations between Japan and New Zealand are almost too good to be true. But if Tokyo continues to take a stronger stance vis-à-vis China and pays more attention to hard power defense issues, this could make New Zealand’s relations with Japan more delicate. The relationship would inevitably end up focusing on more than just business and people-to-people relationships. Trade could end up being linked or combined with other more uncomfortable issues.
In this regard, there are early signs that New Zealand is reading the play. At conferences in July, Ardern and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta have both signaled that New Zealand may be interested in a “Quad-plus” deal, alongside Australia, India, Japan and the United States. It remains to be seen exactly what form any cooperation would take.
Tokyo 2020 is coming to an end. But the real games may be just getting started.
This article was originally published by the Democracy Project, which aims to improve New Zealand democracy and public life by promoting critical thinking, analysis, debate and engagement in politics and society.