Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pledging to build closer ties with Japan as both countries adapt to an increasingly “tough” world, he said in a press conference on Thursday.
Standing alongside Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who was in Ottawa for his first official visit, Trudeau announced plans to send a “Team Canada” trade mission to Japan in October of this year.
But Canada’s goals go beyond deepening economic ties with the world’s third-largest economy. His plans for Japan, he said, also include a joint promise to defend the international order amid growing boldness from authoritarian regimes challenging global norms.
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“The world is a tough place right now. But it’s good to know that we can count on our good and true friends to get through this together.”
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Kishida echoed Trudeau’s promise. He said Japan plans to “strengthen” its cooperation with Canada as “the security environment becomes increasingly tougher.”
Japan is in the midst of a push for deeper defence and economic ties with Western allies as Chinese aggression in the region and in international forums raises concerns.
Just one day before landing on Canadian soil, Kishida formalized a defence agreement with U.K. leadership that could see troops operating in one another’s countries. Japan also has a longstanding military alliance with the United States.
Now experts are saying Canada should push for its own defence partnership with Japan.
“There’s a lot of things that can be done….in terms of assisting in training, assisting in all kinds of different operations, participating in operations and exercises,” said Deanna Horton, a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
“There’s great room for improvement on all of those fronts.”
Why could Japan be a good defence partner?
Japan has a longstanding military alliance with the United States, and the Canada-U.S. relationship is deeply intertwined in many ways, according to Jacob Kovalio, who is an associate professor of Japanese history at Carleton University.
“What we have in common right now is that Japan has had, since 1960, a full-fledged military and political alliance with the United States,” he said.
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What could that look like? There are several options, experts say, and one could include trying to join the Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — dubbed the “Quad” — which includes Australia, India, Japan and the United States.
“Japan is also a member of the Quad. Canada is not,” said Horton.
“Japan is pretty assiduous about going around and talking to G7 partners before the meetings. And this is what Prime Minister Kishida is doing in this case as well — and so I think Canada should take advantage of that.”
As they spoke side-by-side on Thursday, Kishida and Trudeau made it clear they share the goal of keeping the international rules-based order in place. Those conversations, Trudeau said, will be centre stage as Japan hosts the next G7 meeting.
He pointed to the rise of “increasingly contesting authoritarian powers,” including Russia and China.
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“Japan is pretty critical … in terms of dealing with Taiwan and China and North Korea,” Horton said.
“So Japan faces security threats on a number of different fronts and Canada can be helpful on that.”
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Japan has been increasingly focused in combatting disinformation as it beefs up its defence policies, according to Kyoko Kuwahara, a research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
It’s a challenge being recognized in Canada as well, with Kuwahara pointing in particular to the fight against “disinformation threats caused by authoritarian countries.”
Canada’s new digital charter is among the policies the federal government has touted as tackling the domestic disinformation battle, and the heritage department announced funding on Wednesday for projects that it says will strengthen Canadians’ resilience against harmful online disinformation.
Japan, meanwhile, has recently shown a new “willingness” to “tackle or fight against information warfare as well as countermeasures against disinformation campaigns,” Kuwahara said.
“Japan is shifting and we just realized that the cognitive domain in the security area is the most controversial or important, serious issues among the world,” she explained.
This is an area where Kuwahara said the two countries could “cooperate” and “collaborate.”
Canada-Japan ties beyond defence?
Trudeau announced that Canada will be sending a trade mission to Japan, the world’s third-largest economy this fall. And while he didn’t say what areas are most ripe for potential deals, Kovalio said there are key areas where the two countries could likely cooperate.
A major area of interest for Japan is Canada’s natural gas supplies — particularly as Russia weaponizes energy supplies amid the conflict in Ukraine.
“We have been blessed with enormously rich energy resources and, insofar as one specific source of energy, LNG, that is one source that Japan is very much interested in getting (in) as large quantities as possible,” Kovalio said.
When asked about the possibility of selling more LNG to Japan, Trudeau said the government will “continue to look for ways to be (a) reliable supplier of energy.”
However, he did not commit to making any major changes to ramp up that supply.
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Canada is also pushing to increase its sale of critical minerals to Japan, Trudeau said on Thursday.
“There’s going to be a number of Japanese CEOs coming to Canada in the coming months from…an industry association around batteries in Japan,” he said.
These CEOs, he said, are “very interested” in becoming part of Canada’s battery supply chain.
Increased partnerships on these economic fronts have proven an area of interest for Japan due to its focus on “economic security,” Horton said, as Japan has an entire ministry dedicated to maintaining economic security.
“So when you’re talking about critical minerals and energy, one of the things where Japan has always been vulnerable is on the energy side,” she said.
“That’s where I think the partnership has a lot of possibilities in terms of fulfilling potential there.”
Why is Japan shoring up its defence deals now?
Japan has increasingly been stepping into a leadership role on the global stage amid the instability of recent years, Horton said.
One example she pointed to was when the U.S. ditched the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with Pacific Rim countries under former president Donald Trump — and former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe pushed the deal forward with other parties anyway.
“Japan wasn’t necessarily a country that one expected to be a leader. But now Japan is flexing its leadership muscles, and this was very evident when it kind of took over after the U.S. withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Horton said.
“It was Japan who took the lead and said, ‘We’ve got to do this anyway.’ And that’s what they did.”
Beyond its increasing interest in a global leadership role, Japan is also facing a deeply threatening security environment right now.
China has increasingly mobilized military exercise near Taiwan. Should it opt to invade the island, its expansionist push would bring it right to Japan’s doorstep — something Kuwahara said many people in Japan are worried about.
“Japan understands that it is facing the most severe security environment since the Second World War,” said Kuwahara.
“We have been facing some concerns piling up, such as China’s expansion of its military power, North Korea’s nuclear or missile developments, so and so forth.”
She also pointed to Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, which has stoked fears that China might make similar moves against its neighbours in Asia.
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In order to respond to this increasingly dangerous reality, Japan announced an overhaul of its defence policy last month.
The new National Security Strategy (NSS) outlines plans to shed some postwar constraints on the Japanese military and lays the foundation for the country’s defence and security policy in years to come.
Canada has also signaled an interest in moving away from China and shoring up its other friendships in the Indo-Pacific region, according to the strategy released in late November.
“We want to be as close to Korea and to Japan as we are to Germany, France and Great Britain,” Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said, speaking in French last month.
“That’s our objective.”