Rugby, trading and Korea dominate English's Japan visit video

New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English (L) with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
SHIZUO KAMAYASHI/Reuters

New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English (L) with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

ANALYSIS: It was the day Dipton came to Hokkaido.

Bill English is winding up his three day trade trip to Japan on, of all things, a sheep farm.

With the rolling countryside and snowy mountains of the northern island as a back drop it could have been Canterbury or places south.

New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English (L) and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attend a joint news conference at ...
TORU HANAI/Reuters

New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English (L) and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attend a joint news conference at Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan May 17, 2017.

The prime minister did decline an invitation to relive the glory days of his "victory" over gun shearer David Fagan.

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But unlike the Fagan photo-op this was not about selling a new prime minister - Bill the farmer's friend.

New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English accompanied by his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe reviews a guard of honor ...
SHIZUO KAMAYASHI/Reuters

New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English accompanied by his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe reviews a guard of honor prior to their meeting at Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan May 17, 2017.

It was part of the gentle persuasion of Japan's powerful farming lobby that the Trans-Pacific Partnership and New Zealand's part in it comes with opportunities and not just threats from imports.

Such as the opportunity to share know-how.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may have taken the TPP tiller now Donald Trump has pulled the US out, but there is still considerable disquiet about it in rural areas.

Yet that may be easing. Last time I was in Tokyo with John Key there were protests outside as he met Abe.

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Not this time though.

Instead the public protests were in the city and aimed at preserving Japan's defensive and reactive stance against Abe's push to change the constitution to allow a proactive capability.

Abe's reasons are clear.

Alongside the TPP, the North Korean threat faced by Japan were front and centre during the visit.

But sports diplomacy provided a soft serve, leveraging off the All Black's fame.

English mentioned Japan's 2015 World Cup win over South Africa at every possible turn as well as the World Cup it will host in 2019.

Brand New Zealand and Brand All Blacks are interchangeable at the best of times.

But on occasion it was hard to tell where the business of rugby ends and the Government's agenda starts.

A memorandum of understanding on sport was signed followed by English and NZRFU boss Steve Tew jointly announcing an All Black test in Japan next year - well almost jointly, if Tew had not gone on radio to discuss it before the official launch.

There was even a three way handshake that would have made John Key nostalgic.
 

Tew made it plain he didn't loose much sleep over the line between Brand New Zealand and Brand Rugby.

"We're always talking to Government about the role we can play helping push brand New Zealand and push our interests in trade and politics."

There is danger in that approach. After all, not all Kiwis or all parties shares a single view on trade policy.

But it wasn't all rugby, trading and Korea.

There were some light touches too, even if occasionally stage managed.

At the monolithic headquarters of the Tokyo municipality he heard about plans for "urban mining" - using parts of recycled mobiles to fashion medals for the 2020 Olympics.

On cue a recycling bin was wheeled up and English dumped a damaged parliamentary phone he happened to have with him.

At other times the strict protocol strapped around the media would have been annoying if it wasn't so funny.

Waiting with the local press gallery at the office of the prime mister and cabinet, reporters were corralled strictly behind a thin blue line - of the painted on the floor type.

With no chairs to sit on we were told we could squat or sit, provided we didn't put our legs straight out in front of us.  Apparently it looks untidy.

When Trade Minister Todd McClay arrived and wandered over for an informal chat an official intervened to say it was not permitted to talk there.

Escalators were for politicians, reporters were to use the stairs.

Then there was the "no questions", " press conference" with the two PMs.

But if sport and the TPP were the serious business, there was no doubt the North Korean threat cast the darkest shadow.

English made the right noises about Kim Jong Un's "rogue state" and New Zealand's friendship with Japan.

But in the end Japan looks almost exclusively to the US for its defence and security guarantees.

Its wish to keep the TPP alive, and retain much of the current US-influenced text, is not just about insurance for a change of heart by the next president.

It's also about the geopolitical reality for Japan.

Those rolling hills and mountains of Hokkaido are 10,100 kilometres from Christchurch and 13 hours by plane.

North Korea is 1310km and a short ballistic missile's flight away.

Strategic consideration - alongside the huge size of the US market - are likely weighing more heavily with Japan than its stated devotion to free trade and open markets.

 - Stuff

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