Courtesy of the Beehive’s just-in-time media release, at least some New Zealanders now know that Japan’s Shinzo Abe is visiting the country on Monday. This is the first visit here by a Japanese leader for a dozen years. And it is bound to be a major test for New Zealand’s diplomatic balancing act in Asia given Japan’s huge tensions with China, our leading trading partner.
Mr Abe will also be visiting Australia which has become Japan’s second closest security partner after the United States. The Abbott government has been a strong supporter of Mr Abe’s efforts to relax constitutional restrictions on the role of Japan’s armed forces. Australia-Japan security relations are likely to be even closer after Abe’s visit, but it is likely that the Key government will want to emphasise other issues in the New Zealand-Japan relationship.
This is not because New Zealand should stand against a stronger Japan in Asia’s changing power balance. In fact a strong Japan can be part of the glue that keeps the region secure if the changes are made sensibly. But the animosity between Japan and China and also between Japan and South Korea is at such a level that the rest of the region is at risk of being increasingly hostage to what is becoming a North Asian cold war.
It is quite clear that the New Zealand government regards its relationship with China as its most important in Asia. Mr Abbott once said that Japan is Australia’s best friend in Asia. This signals that Canberra and Wellington will be treating Mr Abe’s visit quite differently.
Ordinarily this would mean a focus on free trade negotiations including the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But this would involve strong words for Mr Abe on the need for Japan to accept agricultural reform as the price of a successful agreement. Yet in signing a less demanding bilateral free trade agreement with Australia, Japan may feel it already has an escape clause from such demands.
What Mr Abe will want is New Zealand’s endorsement of Japan’s stronger and more confident role in regional security. Australia has just endorsed Japan’s decision to be able to use armed forces to come to the assistance of security partners, a move which Korea and China oppose very strongly. John Key’s government might well avoid a similar endorsement, emphasising instead New Zealand and Japan’s involvement in regional diplomacy.
Nor will this be the occasion to give the impression that New Zealand supports Japan’s arguments against China in their East China Sea dispute. That would buy us into a heated and hazardous dispute between two of the region’s giants.
Instead, with a distinct and independent New Zealand voice, the Key government should go firmly on the public record to call for mutual restraint in Asia’s maritime disputes and for all parties to respect international law.
But at a time when New Zealand is going for a seat on the Security Council, there is surprisingly little that can be found on the public record as to what the Key government’s foreign policy positions really are. It’s high time for that vacuum to be filled.