With grassy paddocks and snow-capped mountains, Bill English’s time in Hokkaido could have almost passed for New Zealand instead of Japan.
Moving closer to the city however, the gleaming high rises made it clear that this was Sapporo, not Southland.
The main venue for English’s visit to the northern city provided echoes of home: Ecorin Village in Eniwa, an “agricultural village” and Japan’s largest sheep farm with 1000 sheep spread out over 150 hectares.
The former Dipton farmer appeared in his element, chatting with the farm’s owners while leaning against the fence before bottle feeding lambs and giving a pat to a group of Huntaway dogs with tongues lolling - brought over from New Zealand.
It was a sharp contrast to English’s time in the concrete jungle of Tokyo, but his Sapporo sojourn was about more than a taste of home comforts.
Cooperation on agriculture
New Zealand sees agriculture as an area where the two countries can work together more closely, given Japan’s issues with limited land and relatively small-scale farming operations.
English said the farm visit showed the Japanese had become more welcoming of New Zealand farm practices and products.
“I’d see it as a positive sign that the agricultural lobby has got a more constructive attitude about New Zealand, but also we’ve learned to understand their concerns which are legitimate trade concerns.”
He said Japan faced several challenges in its agriculture industry, including a rapidly aging farming workforce and the need to become more competitive.
“New Zealand’s got some technology and practices that can help them with that, and the good news is that they’re open to that which I think does indicate a more positive attitude than would have traditionally been the case.”
Japanese farmers have in the past provided potent domestic opposition against the TPP, arguing it would damage the country’s heavily protected agriculture sector by exposing it to competition from countries like New Zealand without counterbalancing trade benefits.
However, those concerns appear to have been outweighed by Japan’s strategic interests in signing up to the deal, given North Korea’s instability and the need to balance China’s rise in the Asia-Pacific region.
TPP 'strategic as much as trade deal'
English said there had always been an argument that the TPP was a way to provide stability in the Asia-Pacific region rather than simply slashing tariffs – a view he believed was increasingly relevant given North Korea’s rhetoric.
“I’d say it’s as much a strategic deal as a trade deal, and New Zealand’s always run both those arguments; that it would be good for New Zealand for jobs and incomes in New Zealand with reducing tariffs into markets like Japan, but also it has the strategic benefit of locking the big economies in the region into common interests in trade and investment.”
English retains hope that the United States could be among those to lock in, despite conceding that would be unlikely in the near future under the protectionist presidency of Donald Trump.
“We’ve always argued we would prefer the US in TPP. We think in time the logic of open trade and investment will change their minds about it, but that’s up to them.”
For now though, the discussion moves to Vietnam where Trade Minister Todd McClay will take part in a round of talks about the trade deal on the sidelines of an Apec meeting.
English is keen to use the momentum from his discussions with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to push ahead with the deal, and seems steadfast in his belief it should advance unchanged, despite reports that Australia – among others – is keen to change some of the more US-centric provisions.
“If someone is allowed to unpick one issue, everyone will want to unpick an issue, then you’re really back into renegotiating the whole thing.”
English’s own focus now moves to Hong Kong, among the top 10 sources of foreign investment in New Zealand.
He will meet the territory’s outgoing chief executive CY Leung and his successor Carrie Lam, along with a number of business leaders with interest in New Zealand.