New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is in Japan on Thursday as part of her first trip abroad in more than two years, as her government seeks to promote the country’s reopening for business and tourism following a pandemic-related border closure, while Japan wants to focus on mutual security concerns, including China’s new alliance with the Solomon Islands.
Ardern arrived in Japan late Wednesday after her three-day visit in Singapore, where her talks with leaders focused on the economy and bilateral cooperation on climate change and adopting low-carbon and green technologies.
Japanese officials say a new security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, as well as concerns about Beijing’s increasing military activity in the East and South China seas, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, will be among the main issues discussed when Prime Minister Fumio Kishida meets Ardern later Thursday.
“The new security agreement between China and Solomon Islands could affect the security in the entire Pacific region, and Japan is watching the development with concern,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters. “We hope to firmly discuss the issue with New Zealand in the context of achieving a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
The security pact allows China to send police and military personnel to the Solomon Islands while also opening the door for Chinese warships to stop in port. It has triggered worries of a possible Chinese naval base on the doorstep of Australia and New Zealand.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said the pact would not “undermine the peace and harmony of our region” as has been feared by the opposition and countries including the United States and Australia.
Sogavare said his government would not let China build a military base there, and China has denied seeking a military foothold in the South Pacific.
Japan is especially concerned about Chinese military and coast guard activity in the East China Sea near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands, which China also claims and calls Diaoyu.
In a counter to Beijing’s increasing assertiveness, Japan and the US promote a “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision of rule-based navigation and overflight in the region, which is home to the world’s busiest sea lanes.
Ardern’s stopover in Japan is part of her first trip abroad in more than two years and her government wants to portray that New Zealand is reopening for business and tourists after its border closure and strict lockdowns during the pandemic.
New Zealand will reopen its borders to tourists from Japan, Singapore and many other countries from May. International tourism previously accounted for about 20 percent of New Zealand’s foreign income and more than five percent of its gross domestic product, but evaporated after the pandemic began.
The visit is also a chance for Ardern to appear again on an international stage and regain support at home ahead of elections next year. While she is generally highly regarded internationally, her support at home has faded from earlier highs.