This is far from Jacinda Ardern’s first foreign trip – but it almost feels like one. Ardern’s tour of Japan and Singapore this week is the first trip abroad by New Zealand’s prime minister in 781 days. Ardern has not travelled outside the country since February 2020.
The government is calling the trip a “trade mission” to show that “New Zealand is open for business,” given the phased removal of New Zealand’s COVID-19 border restrictions.
If trade is the focus, Ardern’s reasoning behind her choice of destinations is obvious: Japan is New Zealand’s fourth-biggest two-way trading partner, while Singapore is the fifth-biggest. Combined, they represent around NZ$15 billion of two-way trade.
Few limits or barriers to these invaluable trading relationships now exist. New Zealand already has comprehensive free trade agreements (or FTAs) with both Singapore and Japan. The agreement with Singapore is New Zealand’s second-oldest FTA, signed in 2000 and upgraded in 2019.
Indeed, the early deal with Singapore formed the genesis of what ultimately became the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – a multilateral deal between 11 countries around the Pacific Rim, including New Zealand, Singapore, and Japan.
Under the CPTPP, which came into force at the end of 2018, tariffs on most of New Zealand’s biggest export earners in Japan will be heavily reduced or eliminated. Most seafood tariffs will be eliminated by April 2023, for example, while tariffs on apples will be removed entirely by 2028.
Outside trade, there are few other obstacles in New Zealand’s bilateral relationships with either Singapore or Japan, especially after Tokyo ended its whaling program in the Southern Ocean in 2018. In fact, in many ways, New Zealand’s relations with Singapore and Japan could not be better.
But there is more to Jacinda Ardern’s trip than just trade.
Since February 24, the world has split across the new geopolitical fault line of Ukraine. And conveniently for Ardern, New Zealand, Japan, and Singapore have found themselves taking remarkably similar positions in response to Russia’s invasion. All three countries have made radical shifts in their foreign policy to support Ukraine. They have all ended up on Russia’s list of “unfriendly countries” as a result.
Sanctions were the first step. For New Zealand, their imposition in March marked the first time that autonomous sanctions have ever been used, but similar moves were equally groundbreaking in both Singapore and Japan.
Over the past two months, Japan has since made history by sending military equipment – such as bullet-proof vests and helmets – to Kyiv, the first time it has taken such a step since World War II. Tokyo has also accepted several hundred refugees from Ukraine – another rare and very much symbolic decision.
Japan’s decision to back the West sounds familiar to New Zealand, which has found itself reshaping its own foreign policy. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Wellington has inched closer to the West by upgrading its support to Kyiv on an almost weekly basis. New Zealand’s landmark autonomous sanctions against Russia were soon followed by the symbolic supply of helmets and vests. New Zealand’s growing list of support pledges then culminated with last week’s highly-symbolic NZ$7.5 million “lethal aid” contribution to Ukraine.
Of course, despite some similarities, there are also major differences between New Zealand, Japan, and Singapore. After all, while New Zealand and Singapore are both small states and have similar populations, Japan is a G-7 member and a comparative giant.
To that end, Japan has been a key player in taking a stand against China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific. Along with Australia, India, and the United States, Japan is a key member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – or Quad for short – a relatively new grouping that Tokyo has used to take a more assertive stance against China.
Japan’s more aggressive positioning has now outlasted several changes of prime minister. If anything, Japan’s appetite for involvement has only grown. Last week, it was even reported – and promptly denied – that Japan had been invited to join the new high-level AUKUS alliance between Australia, the U.K., and the U.S.
New Zealand’s foreign policy might be drifting toward the West, but it is not on the same page as Japan. However, comparisons with Singapore are certainly valid, especially in relation to AUKUS, on which both countries are neutral to positive.
When AUKUS was announced in September 2021, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan’s line of “we hope that these new arrangements will contribute constructively to peace and stability in our region” was not a world away from Ardern’s own “we welcome the increased engagement of the UK and US in the region.”
Fast-forward to today, and the clever branding of Ardern’s trip as a trade mission has kept the spotlight firmly trained on tourism and kiwi fruit, rather than on these more sensitive issues. The ensuing publicity will all but guarantee the success of the Asia trip, providing the shot in the arm for New Zealand tourism that Ardern is eager to secure.
It also does not hurt that Jacinda Ardern’s stature and star power has only grown over the course of the pandemic.
But with trade issues now largely settled and New Zealand’s overall bilateral relations with both Japan and Singapore being in such good health, more sensitive issues such as China’s recent security deal with Solomon Islands and the impact of the shift in positioning over Ukraine are likely to dominate in Ardern’s conversations behind the scenes and with her direct counterparts.
On her Asia tour, Ardern will hold talks with the prime ministers of both countries, Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong and Japan’s Kishida Fumio. When she was quizzed on the role that China would play in her trip, Ardern was typically diplomatic and oblique, saying, “We are in an increasingly contested region, that does put pressure on the region.”
In 1980, at the height of the Cold War, then New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon declared “our foreign policy is trade.” Over 40 years later – and amidst a new Cold War between Russia and the West – this simple-sounding statement is probably as complex as it has ever been.
And navigating the intersection of trade with new geopolitical realities is what will make Jacinda Ardern’s trip to Asia far more challenging than it might first appear.
This article was originally published by the Democracy Project, which aims to enhance New Zealand democracy and public life by promoting critical thinking, analysis, debate, and engagement on politics and society.