Jacinda Ardern has denied that a new security tie-up with Japan, announced on a visit to Tokyo, is a response to China’s bold expansionism in the Pacific.
Ms Ardern met with counterpart Fumio Kishida as she wraps up a six-day visit to Singapore and Japan, her first trip overseas in two years.
She described the meeting, which ran an hour longer than scheduled, as warm and substantive.
“This partnership matters,” Ms Ardern said.
“Japan and New Zealand must cooperate in what is a deeply uncertain global environment.”
The information-sharing deal is light on detail as it is yet to be fully negotiated between the two countries.
However, Ms Ardern said the deal should not be seen as a tit-for-tat response for a new pact negotiated between China and the Solomon Islands.
“New Zealand has a number of these arrangements … they’re not just about security and intelligence,” she said.
“(The recent volcanic eruption in) Tonga is a really good example. New Zealand’s proximity to the region was really helpful for Japan which wanted to be involved in the humanitarian response.”
Signing a deal with Japan, a geopolitical counterweight to China, suggests New Zealand is solidifying its position within the western orbit that includes the United States and Australia.
While on her Asian trip, Ms Ardern rebuked the Solomon Islands for agreeing to the China deal which will see Chinese police and, possibly, military assets deployed to Honiara.
The Kiwi prime minister said she “saw no need” for it, urging the Solomons to abide by regional agreements to seek security arrangements within the Pacific family.
Ms Ardern and Mr Kishida issued a joint communique, both explicitly and implicitly rebuking China for its regional assertiveness and human rights breaches.
The two leaders expressed “serious concern” about the situation in the South China Sea – without naming China.
They were more targeted in criticism of China over its human rights breaches, saying they held “grave concerns” regarding Xinjiang, where China is accused of targeting and enslaving the Uighur minority, and in Hong Kong due to the erosion of democratic institutions.
Mr Kishida and Ms Ardern also issued “unequivocal condemnation” of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, condemning Russian war crimes.
In Tokyo, Ms Ardern also attended a function by NZ kiwifruit exporters Zespri, where she tried her hand at calligraphy and watched anthropomorphic kiwifruit dance to traditional music before posing for pictures with them.
“Sometimes it means you’ll find yourself doing the odd quirky thing,” she said of overseas travel.
“Kiwifruit is a huge export product for us here in Japan.”
As well as promoting Kiwifruit exports — worth $NZ750 million ($A685 million) to New Zealand in Japan alone — Ms Ardern announced a new car-sharing pilot scheme for Auckland that will utilise hydrogen fuel cell-powered Toyota Mirai built in Japan.