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The dragon in the room: How China aided PM’s Japan visit

Jacinda Ardern would never say China’s aggression in the Pacific has accelerated cozying up to Japan, but her trip to Tokyo couldn’t have been better timed, writes political editor Jo Moir.

After a slow start in Singapore the Prime Minister’s first overseas trip in two years shifted up a gear on arrival in Japan.

There was never going to be any real tangible outcomes from 48 hours in Singapore other than the worthwhile face-to-face time with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

It was Japan that the Prime Minister and Ministry of Foreign Affairs had their eye on, and the prize came in an agreement to negotiate intelligence sharing between the two countries.

The first meeting and dinner between Ardern and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida went more than an hour longer than scheduled.

That almost certainly indicates good rapport with each other and a connection on both a personal and professional level – not easy to achieve when meeting for the first time.

Kishida is known by his people as a deep thinker and is said to be more progressive in what are fast-changing times in Japan.

He is set on having his own thoughts on issues and articulating them in his own way.

That was on display at the summit on Thursday night when Kishida spoke of the world being at a “crucial moment”.

He said the Russian invasion of Ukraine had “shaken the very foundations of the international order” and he hoped having the opportunity to have a “frank exchange” with Ardern would lead to “resolute responses”.

Ardern’s time in Tokyo has seamlessly weaved between official meetings and fluffy photo opportunities.

When talking about Russia and the disruption to rules-based order, Ardern noted Japan and New Zealand’s shared concern that “we ensure the international community demonstrates the likely response to any threat to another nation’s territorial integrity”.

There would be a “swift response should that occur in any other region or country”, she told media.

“Unquestionably we are seeing a growth in the assertiveness in our region, and everyone’s live to that. We’ve seen escalation of tensions in the South China Sea and of course Japan is reflecting what they’re observing in the East China Sea.

“New Zealand takes a very strong and consistent perspective. We call for all countries to uphold international law in our region.”

Jacinda Ardern arrives at a business breakfast in Tokyo. Photo: Supplied

Ardern is walking a tightrope, making it clear China is being watched – even more so now that Japan and New Zealand have teamed up to share intelligence – while not offending a country that is so heavily relied upon for our trade.

Asked by Newsroom if China would see this as a warning shot, Ardern indirectly answered the question by saying that what others thought wasn’t of concern to her.

“It would seem wrong to preclude having such an arrangement with Japan, simply because we’d be worried about the perception of it.”

Ardern’s time in Tokyo has seamlessly weaved between official meetings and fluffy photo opportunities.

Both are necessary when on the world stage and with the help of business powerhouses Zespri and Toyota, the lighter engagements have captured much attention at home and on social media.

A video taken by a reporter of the dancing Kiwifruit brothers has delighted Twitter and is almost approaching four million views – the Washington Post and the Independent have helped by picking it up for their own audiences.

Ardern’s final day in Tokyo saw her speak at a meeting of the Japan-New Zealand Business Council, with a focus on how the two countries will reconnect as borders reopen.

Japan is still closed to tourists, which made Ardern’s visit even more unique.

Walking around the streets of Tokyo the delegation stood out.

New Zealand is set to open its border to Japanese tourists on May 2, which Ardern reminded people of at every opportunity.

Her trip wound up at the New Zealand Embassy where after 30 years she was reunited with her Japanese homestay sister, Madoka Watanabe, who stayed with the Prime Minister’s family in Morrinsville when Ardern was 10.

They remembered about the apple orchard out the back of the house and trying to make Watanabe learn to drive the tractor.

Watanabe hasn’t returned to New Zealand since and Ardern extended an invitation to her and her husband.

Multiple Covid tests were done over the course of the trip and while three members of the delegation had to fly home after the Singapore leg, due to historic cases being picked up in the sensitive PCR test, everyone else could make it home in the clear.

Ardern said it felt like being part of the show Survivor, waiting to see if anyone would get “pinged’.

The Prime Minister leaves Tokyo with strengthened relationships for NZ in the Indo-Pacific. Her focus now shifts to the United States and her travels there next month.

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