New Zealand’s and Japan seem to be being driven closer together by the actions of both China and the United States.
That much has become obvious with the first visit here of Japan’s Foreign Minister for five years.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono wraps up a two-day visit to New Zealand this morning with an announced intention to join New Zealand in its Pacific re-set – a not too subtle plan to counter Chinese influence in the Pacific.
But New Zealand has also recently surprised the Japanese with its decision last month to deploy a P3 Orion aircraft to Okinawa to international waters between China and Japan looking for ship to ship transfer of oil intended to beat the UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea.
Speaking through an interpreter, Kono said he wanted to extend Japan’s gratitude to Foreign Minister Peters and New Zealand for deploying the patrol aircraft to Japan.
“We are thinking that we are going to co-operate in the disarming and denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula,” he said.
And he said that New Zealand and Japan wanted to operate together on both the East and South China Seas to maintain a free and open maritime environment – a reference to China’s contested claim to areas of the South China Sea.
Ms Sakata said that the two sides had discussed the South China Sea and that Japan always had these discussions with foreign countries and shared its assessment of the on-going situation in the area.
“It is very useful,” she said.
Since 2013 Japan and New Zealand have a had a Strategic Cooperative Partnership which focuses on a wide range of activities from defence co-operation to trade, but the focus on this visit was the Pacific.
Foreign Minister Winston Peters, however, seemed to have caught the Japanese off balance with his announcement to his press conference that New Zealand and Japan had begun talking about elevating the partnership by establishing a “structural body” which would coordinate aid in the Pacific.
Tellingly, in his list of potential participants in the body, he left out China.
“We know that if we join together with counties like the EU, France, the UK, the USA, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, we will do a whole lot more and a whole lot quicker,” he said.
“We need to ensure that we have a structural body that is set up to ensure that the decisions we make come to fruition with speed rather than get caught up in the bureaucratic process.”
Pressed for more detail, he said he and his Japanese counterpart had only just started talking about it.
“We need to start conceptualising what we are going to do,” he said.
But Mr Kono’s Assistant Press Secretary, Natsuko Sakata, at a subsequent media briefing on the talks said she couldn’t say anything concrete about any future structure.
However she was willing to talk about the impact of the work of Japan and New Zealand in the Pacific.
Japan is involved in aid projects in Samoa, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea and most notably has funded the
Overall, said Ms Sakata, the two countries diplomatic positions on a number of issues were “very much synchronising.”
This was obviously particularly true of the Pacific strategy.
“It is very helpful from our perspective to further this kind of strategy with like-minded countries.
“We cannot uphold this on our own.
“But of course, you have your own perspectives so there should be some respect with each other, but at the same time, we are trying to cover the same space.
“But by co-operating, we send a very strong signal.”
She said Japan was therefore very curious about how the New Zealand Government would develop its Pacific reset.
And she linked it back to the Indo-Pacific strategy and the South China Sea.
“The maritime order should be prevalent anywhere.
“It’s not just about the Pacific order because the vessels are moving around.”
She said that maximising the ability to use the ocean was important because that was where economic connectivity existed.
And that meant that Japan also had to engage with China. confrontation would be “no good for any of us.”
“But we need some rules to regulate all of us equally.
“So that is why we say we want a rules-based but open free maritime order.”
She said that China and Japan were celebrating 40 years of their Peace and Friendship Treaty and that Mr Abe would meet President Xie later this month.
“At the same time we say what we have to say,” she said.
“For example some principled things.
“Notably the South China Sea because it is very much a common concern for everybody, especially those coastal countries and also the countries who use the area for their freedom of navigation.
“Everybody, not just China, but the regional countries also, should abide by the common rules and not resort to force unilaterally but try to solve the issues peacefully.”
“What we are saying to everybody, every party, is that a rules-based international settlement would be very important.
“That ‘s what we are talking about to every party. We believe that the New Zealand Government are doing the same thing.”
It was a case of reading between the lines.
But just in case anybody hadn’t got the message that Wellington’s attitude to China was changing, Peters reminded journalists of his own views from when he was in Opposition.
“Other Governments might have been reliant on China in their laxity and purpose but not this Government,” he said.
“We are looking at all of the countries that we can work with, and we are going to work with them all including China.
“Who made all those speeches about one product, one company, one market.
So will China be involved in the Pacific reset?
“The discussion today was with the Foreign Minister of Japan about how we might work with our partners in the Pacific, and they are a strategic partner in the Pacific with us on these various projects into the future.
“As to which other countries will be involved, we’ll let you know when that happens.”