Trade flag flying high after English-Abe meeting

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Prime Minister Bill English inspect the guard of honour ahead of their bilateral meeting in Tokyo. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

With dozens of Japanese and New Zealand flags lining the street outside his official residence, it was perhaps fitting that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described the two countries as “flagbearers of free trade”.

After the spectacle of Abe's meeting with Prime Minister Bill English, including a guard of honour complete with an Imperial guards clad in white and equipped with bayonets, the TPP’s flag was flying high.

English described his meeting with Abe as “better than I expected” when it came to the fate of the free trade deal.

Speaking through a translator, Abe said the countries would continue to work closely together with the aim of “early realisation of TPP”.

For his part, English praised Abe’s leadership in reviving the deal, after Japan’s initial reluctance to carry on with a “TPP11” following the withdrawal of the United States under Donald Trump.

“At this time of international uncertainty, it’s more important than ever for outward-looking trading countries like New Zealand and Japan who state their principles clearly to demonstrate our commitment to international trade and regional economic integration.”

One sign of the determination to get the deal through is the reluctance to change the original text, with English saying renegotiations would undercut plans to have it in force by the first half of next year as originally intended.

“For those who want to see it actually happen early then there’s no question, as I put to him that there can’t be any more changes than some technical changes to allow for the implementation without the US.”

Both countries are still keen to see a change of heart from the world’s largest economy - part of the reason for keeping the deal as is.

That didn’t stop English from taking a swipe at “the headwind of protectionist rhetoric” during a business lunch earlier in the day.

“It should become clear in the United States’ domestic politics that it is in the interests of economic growth and in the interests of the welfare of their households to have free and open trade.

“More protection of the border in the US can only push up living costs for United States households and voters.”

North Korea

The talks covered far more than trade, with Abe saying “both island nations of the Pacific” could cooperate closely on a number of issues, including disaster management, defence, and assistance to Pacific nations.

The pair committed to taking “a firm and resolute response” against the actions of North Korea over its missile tests, with English saying afterwards the UN had to “tighten up on its sanctions” as the country made swift technical progress.

“What runs deep here is the feeling of the immediacy of the threat, the way that appears to have changed in recent years under the North Korean leadership, and the speed at which they appear to be developing their technical capacity.”

Unsurprisingly, rugby also came to the fore after of the announcement that the All Blacks will play in Japan next year ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Abe said he was looking forward to working together with New Zealand on World Cup preparations as “a big nation of sports”, while English wished Japan luck at the tournament - “just not at the expense of the All Blacks”.

Mobiles to medals

Earlier in the day, English met the woman who could one day be Abe’s replacement.

Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, Japan’s most popular leader with approval ratings as high as 86 per cent, appeared an enthusiastic fan of New Zealand as she spoke through a translator about her travels around the North and South Islands.

Koike said the city’s preparations for the 2020 Olympic Games were well underway, with 130 of the 2200 primary schools in the metropolitan area tasked with studying New Zealand ahead of the event.

Tokyo was planning on using “urban mine materials” from old cellphones to make the medals for the Games.

That was the catalyst for what surely must be one of New Zealand’s more unusual prime ministerial gifts, with English handing over a damaged cellphone for recycling - on the proviso that “we will win enough medals to get the components back to New Zealand”.

The phone was ceremoniously placed in a yellow recycling bin, ready to receive the golden touch; English later reassured reporters that the phone wasn’t his, and had been wiped of any data before making the trip.