Expect the TPP to feature strongly during Prime Minister Bill English’s trip to Japan – but don’t be surprised if sports and sheep also make cameos.

English is heading off to Japan and Hong Kong on Tuesday for a week-long trip which will include a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Speaking to media the day before flying out, the Prime Minister described the Japan visit as “a priority trip for this government” – perhaps a diplomatic nicety, but one which carries a fair whiff of truth given the country’s economic and geopolitical importance to the Asia-Pacific.

Trade Minister Todd McClay, joining English on the trip, said the visit was a chance to build on a relationship which had deepened in recent years as both countries advocated for the benefits of trade and investment.

“We’ve been working very closely with Japan during a lot of last year and certainly this year around trade issues as greater uncertainty and the advent of protectionism is cropping up around the place, so really it’s just an opportunity at prime ministerial level to continue to demonstrate the importance of that relationship and take some key business sectors with us.”

Japan New Zealand Business Council chairman Ian Kennedy, a former career diplomat who was posted to Japan three times, said the trip was a timely opportunity to “inject some new energy into the relationship”.

TPP talks

Perhaps the most significant area of cooperation is the countries’ joint attempts to resuscitate the ailing 12-nation TPP trade deal, after US President Donald Trump ceremoniously withdrew his country from talks.

While Abe said last year the TPP would be “meaningless” without the US, his government has in recent months taken the lead in talks for a potential “TPP11” – much to New Zealand’s delight.

Japan is our country’s fourth-largest trading partner, with about $6.5 billion in two-way trade. With no bilateral free trade deal between the two countries, Japan alone was expected to provide New Zealand more than three-quarters of the $274 million in tariff savings from the original TPP deal.

English said New Zealand’s decision to join Japan in ratifying the TPP was about providing “a clear message” that the two countries saw value in salvaging the deal – so expect discussions about the next steps to take up a reasonable chunk of English and Abe’s time together.

Sport a selling point for relationship

Unsurprisingly, Kennedy said sport was playing a significant role in bilateral relations.

On top of Kiwi rugby players plying their trade in Japan, about 50 professional and amateur Japanese golfers participated in the NZ Open, while a delegation from Japan’s Kansai region visited Auckland’s Masters Games recently ahead of their hosting in 2021.

“There’s growing interaction based on sport between Japan and New Zealand, and in the Japanese way, everything depends on relationships. If you have relationships, then you get confidence and trust, then things start to happen.”

McClay endorsed that approach, pointing to the inclusion of NZ Rugby chief executive Steve Tew among the delegation.

“We have some great brand ambassadors in New Zealand that do very well for us, we’ll be looking to use every opportunity to leverage New Zealand and our presence during the Rugby World Cup in Japan and there’ll be a number of businesses coming along that are already very involved.”

Kennedy said there were opportunities for the two countries to cooperate in other areas, such as geothermal energy.

“If you look at most of our geothermal power stations, a large number of them have turbines that the Japanese made, so it’s New Zealand under the ground expertise and Japanese on top of the ground expertise that could be used better in New Zealand or Japan, or in third countries.”

There was also “huge potential for growth” in agriculture, where Japan had traditionally seen New Zealand as a competitor rather than a partner.

“If we can move that onto a real partnership basis in the same way the Japanese have become a wonderful partner in the timber industry in New Zealand…there’s great potential still for New Zealand agriculture expertise [and] farming techniques to be transferred across, to sheep farming particularly in Japan.”

‘Natural affinity’

The connection between the two countries is about more than business, however.

Japan provides the third-highest number of tourists to New Zealand (about 100,000 came in 2016), while Kiwis have consistently said they feel most warmly towards people from Japan in Asia New Zealand’s Perceptions of Asia survey.

Kennedy said the significant cultural and historical differences between the two countries were part of the attraction for visitors, while there was a deeper bond underneath.

“There’s sort of a natural affinity between Japanese and New Zealanders – it’s hard to explain, but I think we get each other in a very nice way, and people just enjoy each other’s company.”

English will be hoping he can make the most of that affinity during his time in the country.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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