WELLINGTON, July 4 (Xinhua) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit here next week will be a test of the New Zealand government's independent foreign policy and its ability to help contain tensions between Japan and China in the East China Sea, a leading New Zealand expert on international affairs said Friday.
"This is the first visit here by a Japanese leader for a dozen years. And it is bound to be a major test for New Zealand's diplomatic balancing act in Asia given Japan's huge tensions with China, our leading trading partner," said Robert Ayson, professor of strategic studies at Wellington's Victoria University.
Abe would also be visiting Australia, Japan's second closest security partner after the United States, where Prime Minister Tony Abbott's government had been a strong supporter of Abe's efforts to relax constitutional restrictions on the role of Japan' s armed forces, Ayson said in a statement.
Australia-Japan security relations were likely to be even closer after Abe's visit, but it was likely that New Zealand Prime Minister John Key's government would want to emphasize other issues in the New Zealand-Japan relationship as the Key government clearly regarded its relations with China as its most important in Asia.
"Ordinarily this would mean a focus on free trade negotiations, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But this would involve strong words for Mr.Abe on the need for Japan to accept agricultural reform as the price of a successful agreement," said Ayson.
"Yet in signing a less demanding bilateral free trade agreement with Australia, Japan may feel it already has an escape clause from such demands."
Abe would want New Zealand's endorsement of Japan's decision to be able to use armed forces to come to the assistance of security partners, a move supported by Australia, but very strongly opposed by the Republic of Korea and China.
"John Key's government might well avoid a similar endorsement, emphasizing instead New Zealand and Japan's involvement in regional diplomacy," said Ayson.
"Nor will this be the occasion to give the impression that New Zealand supports Japan's arguments against China in their East China Sea dispute. That would buy us into a heated and hazardous dispute between two of the region's giants," he said.
"Instead, with a distinct and independent New Zealand voice, the Key government should go firmly on the public record to call for mutual restraint in Asia's maritime disputes and for all parties to respect international law."
But at a time when New Zealand was bidding for a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2015-2016, there was surprisingly little that could be found on the public record as to what the Key government's foreign policy positions really were.
"It's high time for that vacuum to be filled," said Ayson.