PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – Last week, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida held a summit with his New Zealand counterpart, Jacinda Ardern.
It was the first in-person meeting between the two countries’ heads of government since 2017 and served as another important milestone in the relationship that they have termed a “Strategic Cooperative Partnership.”
The two leaders marked the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and New Zealand — a relationship that has been meaningful, but notably different from Tokyo’s ties with other regional players in terms of the issues that the respective governments have prioritized for the better part of the last two decades.
For the most part, the two countries have focused on three core themes: regional trade, nonproliferation and Pacific Islands cooperation.
The regional trade frameworks that the two governments have worked on since the early 2000s have come in two forms: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Japan and New Zealand have coordinated at the highest levels over the years to ensure successful negotiation, ratification and implementation of these agreements.
The second focus area has been nonproliferation. Whereas China weighs heavily in most of Japan’s regional security relations, Japan-New Zealand ties have taken more of a specific issue-based approach; namely, preventing the creation and spread of weapons of mass destruction.
While the countries cooperated in response to anti-terrorism in the early 2000s, their functional security relationship began deepening with the so-called Proliferation Security Initiative aimed at halting the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems.
Since 2007, Japan and New Zealand have both hosted PSI exercises, and since 2018, Japan has served as a staging area for New Zealand Defence Forces that conduct surveillance missions to bust North Korean activities such as sanctions evasion and possible weapons proliferation via the East China Sea.
Third, the two countries have made a point to support each other in Pacific Islands cooperation, including humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and sustainable economic development. They have opted to serve as patrons for development and guarantors of stability in the Oceania region.
When Kishida and Ardern met last week, those three themes were once again present, but their joint statement reflected the evolving diplomatic and security conditions in the region and beyond.
The world has changed much since the last in-person summit between the Japanese and New Zealand leaders. The COVID-19 pandemic severely disrupted trade and travel across the globe and economies are still in the early stages of recovery. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was a shock to the United Nations system and threatens second-order effects including food insecurity for developing nations who depend on Russian and Ukrainian agricultural exports.
Meanwhile, China has continued its revisionist activities in the East China Sea and South China Sea meant to change the status quo in its favor, while also working to stretch its influence further into the Pacific. The most recent issue to emerge is that of a deal that Beijing has pursued with the Solomon Islands that could afford China a military foothold in Oceania.
Such were the challenges that underpinned the most recent engagement between Japanese and New Zealand leaders, reflected both in the joint statement and the outcomes from the meeting.
Both as a measure of facilitating recovery from the pandemic and for managing China’s expanding influence, the prime ministers welcomed the entry into force of the RCEP and reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring full implementation of the agreement as a means of reinforcing the “rules-based economic order” in the region. Although the joint statement did not include specific condemnation of China’s push to conclude a security pact with the Solomon Islands, they did express their mutual obligation to help preserve “the rights, freedoms and sovereignty of all countries regardless of size or power,” while noting their effort to bolster the CPTPP and signaling that it is time for the United States to return to that agreement.
They also made pledges on security to diversify and deepen their relationship amid evolving challenges. Broadly, this meant the inclusion of economic and cybersecurity within the scope of their partnership.
But there was one security pledge that was especially notable: the assertion that they would work toward an information sharing agreement. Achieving a general sharing of military information agreement, or GSOMIA, is important for both a bilateral and a multilateral reason.
Bilaterally, it is an essential instrument for the security relationship. The ability to share intelligence is a fundamental component of interoperability, so this will be an important update in ties between the Japan Self-Defense Forces and New Zealand Defence Force.
Multilaterally, a GSOMIA between Japan and New Zealand is an essential step toward Japan’s bid to become one of the “Five Eye” partners.
The so-called Five Eyes are five countries who have an intelligence-sharing alliance: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Japan has been seeking to join this framework for years now, and deepening intelligence sharing with one of the Five Eye partners is a move that would ostensibly help its bid.
For Japan, becoming part of the Five Eyes framework offers both practical and political utility. From a practical standpoint, it eliminates barriers to interoperability with partners with whom Japan is already pursuing closer bilateral and multilateral ties.
If for example the United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand are conducting a military operation together, it would be easier for one set of information to be shared among all partners rather than parsing it out between what can only be shared between the U.S. and Japan, Japan and Australia, etc.
From a political perspective, the Japanese government views becoming a Five Eye partner as representing an elevation of the country’s place within the global security order. The Kishida administration believes Japan can and should play a bigger role in international security, something the country has attempted to demonstrate in its proactive and principled response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The necessity for a firm response to Russia was a view shared with the New Zealand side in last week’s meeting as well. The two governments specifically condemned Russia’s “inhuman acts,” and affirmed their intent to continue raising the costs imposed for Russia’s “illegal and unjustified aggression” through sanctions. For Japan and New Zealand, this was a modest but important step toward a more globally focused bilateral partnership and one that reinforces not just a free and open Indo-Pacific, but the wholesale rules-based international order.
All in all, this proved to be the most robust leaders’ meeting since Prime Minister Helen Clark met Junichiro Koizumi in June 2005. It came at a crucial time for Japan’s security designs, as they are currently rewriting their National Security Strategy and National Defense Program Guidelines this year. The joint statement and other outcomes from the meeting will inform the changes we will see in those documents related to Japan and New Zealand and their shared priorities for the coming years.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.