Shinzo Abe talks tough on tariffs
Prime Minister John Key and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe may sound like they are speaking the same language on trade, even if they remain miles apart on the other hot potato in the relationship, whaling.
But in reality, the gap between them may be almost as wide on both fronts.
Abe's flying visit to New Zealand yesterday was Key's opportunity to take a reading from Abe on Japan's position on the abolition of agricultural tariffs and quotas under negotiations for a Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
It was also a chance to hear first-hand Japan's intentions in relation to the resumption of whaling, after the International Court of Justice ruled in March that Japan's government-subsidised whaling programme in the Southern Ocean was for commercial purposes, rather than scientific purposes as Japan had claimed.
On the whaling front, there was little comfort for New Zealand - Abe's message to Key was that Japan would look for ways to resume Southern Ocean whaling while sticking within the letter of the law in relation to the ICJ ruling on scientific whaling.
That New Zealand would see such a move as paying lip service to the ICJ and riding roughshod over public sensitivities both in New Zealand and Australia weighs less heavily on Japan than its own domestic pressures.
Those domestic pressures weigh just as heavily on the Japanese Government in relation to the TPP, particularly the powerful agriculture lobby in Japan, which fears the removal of measures protecting its market position.
Ahead of yesterday's meeting, Key had suggested that if Japan's inclusion in the TPP threatened the goal of achieving a tariff-free Asia Pacific trading bloc it should be excluded.
Abe issued a pointed reminder at the start of his press conference in Auckland yesterday that Japan is the world's third largest economic power. As such, its inclusion gives the TPP a "strategic" edge, without which the ambitious trade agreement is unlikely to get over the line with the United States. The sub-text was that Japan gets to call the shots, not New Zealand.
Key's reference to New Zealand being prepared to show some patience over the thorny issue of tariffs was an acknowledgement of that fact.
It also suggests that Abe's stated desire for a comprehensive and high-quality agreement does not come without strings and that it will fall well short of New Zealand's ideal for a "comprehensive" agreement.
But it was not all one-way traffic; Key's blunt message to Abe was that anything less than a comprehensive win for New Zealand agriculture would be a hard sell to the public, who are already wary of the TPP. In other words, Abe is not the only one facing domestic pressures.