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Q&A with Toshihiro Nakayama: 'NZ and Japan see a different China'

Visiting Japanese professor Toshihiro Nakayama shares with Asia New Zealand Foundation researcher Rebecca Townsend his views on New Zealand's involvement with China's Belt and Road initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and what changes in the US-Japan alliance mean for New Zealand.

Dr Toshihiro Nakayama, Professor of American Politics and Foreign Policy at Keio University, and Adjunct Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs

What's the difference in challenges faced by Japan and New Zealand in the Asia-Pacific?

We're located in very different parts of the Asia-Pacific. New Zealand doesn't feel any geopolitical threats – that's the biggest difference. You can see China's rise from a distance. You can take away the benefits of China's economic prosperity, without feeling the potential uncertainty of their political and military rise. On that point, New Zealand and Japan see a very different Asia or China.

Although some people view Japan as a declining power, it’s still the world's third-biggest economy, and second in the region (although India is rising). We don’t think we can shape China’s rise. But we feel we have to be aware of a China-centric system overriding the liberal, open, and rule-based order we have now.

How do you think the New Zealand-China relationship is seen in Tokyo?

The BRI (Belt and Road initiative) memorandum of understanding signed by New Zealand looked a bit … too optimistic and too naive. It’s part of an effort to launch a China-centric sphere. That’s how Japan sees the BRI. 

Japan is deeply involved in other economic development institutions, primarily the Asian Development Bank. Is there a merit of Japan supporting an alternative institution? As of now, we don't see it.

New Zealand was much quicker than other countries in signing the MOU with China on the BRI. New Zealand officials and scholars see the potential negative influence of China’s rise; there is debate within New Zealand – we hear that. But looking at it from outside, New Zealand seems to be a bit too optimistic about China’s geopolitical ambitions.

I don’t think China’s geopolitical ambition is fully articulated. It’s still chaotic, it’s causally related with the power struggles in China, so it is not automatic and we are not even sure it is going to happen. But because of the geographic proximity, how China will rise and in which way, poses a critical question to Japan. On that point, New Zealand and Japan may see things differently.

Should New Zealand be more aware of Japan’s perspective?

Sometimes, in our view, New Zealand seems to be overly optimistic, and see the good parts about China’s rise. But bilateral relations-wise, except for the whaling issue, there are no serious issues between New Zealand and Japan.

The China issue, however, could potentially become a major difference in how we perceive a desirable regional order.

What would you like to see as top of the agenda for New Zealand ministers in Japan?

TPP11 could be an important agenda for both countries.

New Zealand was the major proponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Japan joined at a later stage. When Japan was there, it seemed like Japan and the United States were the main players because of sheer size. But still as an intellectual facilitator, New Zealand played and has been playing an important role. Unfortunately, the US chose not to join. We went through a difficult process of negotiations; we have the document.

It’s going to be a layer of rule-based regional order which would have not just economic implications, but political, and to a degree, security implications as well … We should try to put it on life support for maybe four or eight years, or even sooner if Donald Trump changes his mind. To keep the document open to the US.

Dr Toshihiro Nakayama, Professor of American Politics and Foreign Policy at Keio University, and Adjunct Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs

What do the changes with the US-Japan alliance mean for the Asia-Pacific, including New Zealand?

It’s huge. In order for an alliance to function, the US has to be physically present in the region. The US presence in Japan is the major component of that. If the alliance becomes fragile, it will have region-wide implications. Probably China would be happy with that, and North Korea, of course. But besides those two countries, all other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, would be extremely worried. Without the presence of a US force that could be deployed region-wide, it’s going to be a major negative security factor in the region.

So people have been talking about Japan becoming more robust in terms of what we can do for security matters and beefing up our military capabilities. That’s all important. But the most important regional responsibility we have is to host the US military presence in its various possible ways.

Toshihiro Nakayama is Professor of American Politics and Foreign Policy at Keio University in Tokyo, and Adjunct Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs. He was in New Zealand on 4 May 2017 for the "Trump, China and the Region" conference, organised by the Centre for Strategic Studies and the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre.

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16 May 2017