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Opinion: A path to deepening the NZ-Japan security partnership

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's security legislation reform opens a pathway for Japan to deepen its security partnership with New Zealand, writes academic Tadashi Iwami.

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Mary English, New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English, Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Akie Abe

On his first visit to Japan on 17 May 2017, New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English met PM Shinzo Abe and reaffirmed the importance of collaborative efforts in addressing key agendas former PM John Key had brought to the table.

Both leaders said they were committed to enhancing the bilateral relationship in various aspects, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and security relationships such as nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

They also agreed on the mutual commitment to the peace and development in the Pacific. This is a clear sign both leaders are interested in taking the bilateral relationship to the next level. 

It prompts an important question: What sort of unique and complex challenges can New Zealand and Japan address together as two key Asia-Pacific nations that have shared views on regional  and international affairs?

NZ and Japan's role in the Asia-Pacific

New Zealand's approach towards its security role in the Asia-Pacific is to take a multilateral and less coercive approach towards resolving conflicts. New Zealand cares about the safety and well-being of individuals in the region, therefore, their human security. Such values have resulted in its commitment towards non-traditional security agendas such as human rights and international peacekeeping in Timor-Leste and the Solomon Islands. 

Japan is a long way from playing a full-fledged security role in the Asia-Pacific region, despite the security reform that took place under the second Abe administration from 2012. The country now allows itself to take collective, albeit limited, actions based on the collective self-deference right with its US counterpart.

By the revised laws concerning its participation in international peacekeeping operations, Japan can send its Self-Defence Force (SDF) personnel to non-UN peace operations.

This is not to say Japan’s security role has radically changed over the last five years. It has incrementally evolved. Against the odds, Japan has continued to prioritise the promotion of human security in recipient countries, including most of the Pacific Island nations, as its one of the primary objectives of its foreign aid programmes. 

Overall, the concept of human security is a concept embraced by both New Zealand and Japan, and this shared value allows them to work together in the broader context of security.

NZ PM Bill English with Japan PM Shinzo Abe, 2017

Path forward: Long-term peacebuilding

The NZDF supported various stability and security operations in Timor-Leste from 1999 until December 2012.

One possible area for bilateral security cooperation is peacebuilding.

New Zealand has a long history of contributing to multilateral peacekeeping, along with foreign aid, to Pacific recipients. The Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) is one instance of New Zealand's proven track record of its commitment in the Pacific region. Embracing the concept of human security, New Zealand has aimed not only at restoring civil order in the capital Honiara and throughout the nation, but also at rebuilding more resilient, stable and sustainable political, economic and social functions. 

Unlike New Zealand, Japan has not made the same level of contributions to RAMSI, despite its shared values of human security and its interest in the Pacific region.

The primary reason for this was due to a lack of legal framework that would allow Japanese self-defence personnel to join New Zealanders in non-UN multilateral missions such as RAMSI. But recent legislation changes now make it possible for Japan to do so.

While Abe’s 2015 security legislation reform has sparked concern among officials, scholars and the public, it provides Japan with a more refined idea of its future role in the Asia-Pacific region. It gives the nation a better pathway to play a more proactive but cooperative role in multilateral security efforts in the region.

To be more precise, based on the concept of human security both nations broadly share, New Zealand and Japan can stand shoulder to shoulder and make shared positive contributions to long-term peacebuilding and development of the Solomon Islands and the region as a whole.

There is much to gain and offer by doing so.

Dr Tadashi Iwami is a lecturer at the Institute of Pacific United's Faculty of Contemporary International Studies, and co-chair of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs Palmerston North Branch. His primary research interests are in the fields of International Relations, with a focus on the Asia region, particularly Japan. His ongoing research explores Japan’s peacebuilding role in international society. Iwami earned an MA in Political Science at the University of Canterbury, and PhD at Otago University.

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author and are not to be taken as representing those of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

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2 August 2017