Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed to negotiate an intelligence-sharing agreement between their two countries late on Thursday, as New Zealand looks to strengthen its relationship with the country amidst concern about China’s assertiveness in the region.
Ardern and Kishida met late on Thursday in Tokyo, as part of the Prime Minister’s first overseas trip since the start of the pandemic. It is their first-ever meeting.
The two countries said they would negotiate an intelligence-sharing arrangement to share classified material “seamlessly”. Japan is not part of the Five Eyes intelligence network that New Zealand is a member of.
The joint statement from the two prime ministers directly tied this arrangement to concerns about “protecting peace and security in the Indo-Pacific”.
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In a translated speech at the start of their meeting, Kishida said he hoped the pair could have a “frank exchange of views” about their strategic co-operation in a changing world.
“Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has shaken the very foundation of the international order, and I want to work closely with New Zealand to take resolute responses,” Kishida said, in his translated opening remarks.
Ardern said Japan and New Zealand were aligned on issues amidst a “volatile strategic environment”.
“Now more than ever we need to commit to an Indo-Pacific region that is open, inclusive, stable, prosperous, and underpinned by a rules-based order free from coercion.”
China’s increasing role in the Pacific has loomed in the background of the trip, particularly as the geopolitical heavyweight announced it had signed a defence pact with the Solomon Islands. New Zealand and its allies in the region strongly oppose the pact, arguing that it will lead to increased militarisation of the Pacific.
The joint statement said both countries were partners in “advancing and protecting peace and security in the Indo-Pacific”.
It also noted the leaders’ “grave concerns” with China’s actions in both Xinjiang and Hong Kong and “serious concerns” about China’s actions in the South China Sea.
Earlier in the day, Ardern cautioned against “pigeonholing” China over its lack of action against Russia however, saying they should not be lumped in with Russia simply because they had not condemned the country as New Zealand had.
“We have seen statements from China articulating their support for territorial integrity and the sovereignty of the nation of Ukraine and so that in my mind is an acknowledgement of the threat that this war has posed against them and their territorial integrity,” Ardern said.
“We also support wider de-escalation. We are all worse off if there is a situation where China is pigeonholed into a position where they are seen to be only aligned with Russia. Let’s continue the dialogue and make sure we don’t have that situation.”
David Capie, Director of Victoria University’s Centre for Strategic Studies, said the meeting would be a good opportunity for “personal chemistry” between the leaders and for injecting some momentum into a relationship that had been on the rise prior to Covid-19.
“There’s a lot of shared interests – finding a way to sustain US engagement in the region, both economically and strategically – and supporting a rules-based order in maritime Asia.”
Like China, Japan was looking to expand its role in the Pacific – but New Zealand had far more shared values and common interests with Japan, Capie said.
He said Japan would be a key part of New Zealand diversifying its trade away from China.
“It’s the third-largest economy in the world and it has incredibly prosperous consumers.”
Ardern has one more full day in Japan before flying home to New Zealand on Saturday.