Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s upcoming tour of Oceania is a rare chance for a Japanese Prime Minister to visit the Kingdom Tonga, and conversely for Tonga to receive such a high-profile guest.
In early July, Prime Minister Abe is reportedly going to visit Canberra, Port Moresby and Wellington. Nuku’alofa could productively be included on the Prime Minister’s itinerary as, not only is it on the way, but also the majority of the countries of Oceania are small islands countries, like Tonga, and direct bilateral engagement would reflect well on Japan’s proven commitment to the region.
Should Abe choose to visit Tonga, it would be a historical and memorable first for the two countries, something to be celebrated in years to come. The timing is also ideal as both countries seek friendly relations with true friends and in their ‘near abroad’.
The three main foci of Abe’s Oceania tour are energy with PNG; trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement with New Zealand; and the security architecture of the Indo-Pacific with Australia.
These elements are tied together by the controversial and strategic Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP), now seemingly affected by the growing strategic relationship between Japan and Australia (Australia has made a bid to buy up to US$33 billion of military hardware from Japan, especially stealth submarine technology for its aging diesel-powered fleet – some of this will likely be discussed in Canberra).
Australia and Japan recently inked a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that, to New Zealand, threatens the momentum of the TPP by giving preferential access to Australian meats into the Japanese market. New Zealand is willing open itself up more in the TPP negotiations, in order to offset the advantages Australia secured through its FTA with Japan. Abe’s New Zealand stopover is partially aimed at soothing Wellington on that front.
Exxon-Mobil’s new US$19 billion natural-gas plant in PNG has sent off its first cargo to its first customer, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), in Japan. In January, Japan and PNG agreed that Japanese firms will be able to operate under the same rules as local companies in PNG.
Abe could add another element to his trip with a visit to Tonga. There are many shared areas of interest, for example, food security. Japan has been by far Tonga’s largest export market after the demise of copra. Squash pumpkin and taro is a popular and multi-million dollar export industry to Japan. There are also tremendous possibilities in fisheries and high-end products like organic vanilla.
Additionally, as Japan inches through its negotiations towards the TPP, one of the greatest internal challenges to the deal is the powerful lobby of the millions of rice farmers. The small-medium rice farmers are considered by many to be essential to Japanese identity and food security, and there are concerns that the TPP would flood and distort the market and destroy the sector. Concerns shared by many small farmers in Tonga. In both countries, small-scale domestic farming has been a buffer against global food market dependency and fluctuations.
Japan-Tonga relations are as old as the two countries accession into ‘modern’ era in the mid-19th century, when Emperor Meiji, King Kalakaua of Hawaii, and Taufa‘ahau Tupou I, talked of creating a confederacy of independent Pacific island states.
The relationship has only grown from strength to strength, ranging from much-needed strong trade to Japan’s well considered and effective grant assistance. Japan’s track record in effective development assistance is unmatched relative to other partners, and includes pillars of Tonga’s modernization in the transport, energy, education, and health sectors
Last week, the “Japan-Tonga Trade and Investment Symposium” wrapped up in Nuku’alofa. Stemming off Tokyo’s Pacific Leaders Meeting (PALM_MIM2) in October 2013, the symposium’s goal was to examine past trade and investment, identify challenges Tonga faces in expanding trade and investments, and helping Tonga overcome these challenges. As with other small island countries in the region, Tonga needs and wants trade more than aid. Japan is not only opening up for trade with Tonga, it is also actively helping Tongan trade and investments. With the considered placement of Japanese assistance, a little can go a long way in terms of enhancing national strategic choices.
At the heart of the relationship between Japan and Tonga is not just solidarity between Pacific peoples (intermarried families, hundreds of exchange students, JICA volunteers, and even Tongan professional rugby players on the Japanese national team), but the warmth and personal relationship between the two royal families. His Royal Highness Crown Prince Naruhito and other members of the Imperial family have visited Tonga several times, and likewise for Tonga’s royalty, Prime Ministers, and other executives have visited Japan.
As the TPP is an offshoot of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), none of the Pacific islands, including Tonga, are included in the negotiations even though members like Australia and New Zealand have considerable influence when it comes to regional frameworks and regulations. The Pacific Island Forum (PIF) is only an observer at APEC. Excluding the small islands does not serve to avert disaster to their economies and environments.
A side-trip by Abe to Tonga would signal that the voices of the small farmers be heard in these negotiations, and would be a massive and popular soft-power push for Japan in the region.
The governments of the two countries should ensure that a stopover in Tonga happens, especially given the warm feelings the Tongan people have for Japan as a result of its consistent, honest development and trade partnership
In a liberal global society, diplomacy can be pursued for its own ends. And when considered properly, diplomacy is at the center of geostrategy. A trip to Tonga boosts Japan’s diplomatic soft-power deep into South Pacific hearts.