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Japanese PM Kishida visits Ottawa, asks for Canada's help on clean energy transition

OTTAWA — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has asked Canada to form closer ties during a visit to Ottawa that experts say comes at a time when the two countries have significant geopolitical alignment.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Prime Minister of Japan Fumio Kishida on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has asked Canada to form closer ties during a visit to Ottawa that experts say comes at a time when the two countries have significant geopolitical alignment.

Kishida visited Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the first time as Japan's head of government, part of a tour of other G7 countries as Japan seeks ways to wean off fossil fuels from places such as Russia.

Japan holds the G7 presidency this year and is set to host meetings with the leaders of some of the world's richest countries. The group includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, plus the European Union.

Tokyo plans to use the presidency to co-ordinate with other states on economic management and to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Kishida arrived in Ottawa from London late Wednesday and was off to Washington, D.C., on Thursday afternoon.

"It absolutely is crucial, even if it's a short visit," said Ian Burney, who served as Canada's ambassador in Tokyo from 2015 to 2021.

"There is a near-perfect alignment between Japan's desire to diversify its sources of imports … and Canada's desire to diversify our export markets, which remains extremely overly reliant on just one market to our immediate south," said Burney, who is now an investment adviser.

Kishida's is the first visit to Canada by an Asian head of government since Ottawa launched its Indo-Pacific strategy last November, which called for closer ties with countries that can counterbalance Beijing's influence.

A new Japanese defence strategy unveiled last month included working with allies to ward off threats from North Korea and China, and made it legal for Japan to conduct military strikes against enemy bases. Tokyo is boosting its military spending by 26 per cent in just one year.

"We agreed that we would strongly oppose unilateral attempts (by China) to change the status quo by force," Kishida said of his discussion with Trudeau, through an interpreter.

Meanwhile, a regional trade deal launched in 2018 has helped both countries expand trade to each other's markets. Under the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, Canada has increased exports of pork and oil to Japan and brought in more Japanese machinery and auto parts. 

"Trade is booming between our two countries," Trudeau said at a Thursday lunch he hosted for Kishida and corporate executives.

"We share a vision for peace and prosperity on both sides of the Pacific."

University of British Columbia political scientist Yves Tiberghien said Canada gained "first-mover advantage" by inking the trade deal with Japan, which the United States still hasn't done.

He noted Kishida's visit comes just months after Japan and Canada both singled out China as a threat to stability in the region.

Kishida told Thursday's lunch guests that liquefied natural gas will play a "crucial role" in Japan's energy transition and that Canada's looming LNG export terminal is one example of the ways Ottawa can help.

"On science, technology and innovation, (digital transformation) and startups, I am very keen to further strengthen co-operation between industry, government and academia in both countries," Kishida said through an English interpreter.

"Nuclear power will also play a key role and we look forward to working together to make the nuclear supply chain more resilient."

Yet Trudeau and Kishida did not commit to any further LNG projects, such as a proposed Phase 2 expansion of the looming terminal at Kitimat, B.C. 

"We're going to continue to look for ways to be that reliable supplier of energy," Trudeau said.

"Even as we do talk about things like LNG and other traditional sources of energy, we know the world is moving aggressively and meaningfully towards decarbonizing, towards diversifying, towards more renewables," he added.

Burney said global competition makes it essential for Canada to meet the 2025 timeline to export LNG.

"It was an area of some frustration for me because we've been talking about becoming a major energy supplier to Japan for decades and for most of that time, it was just that — talk," he said.

"Frankly, all eyes are on that project. It is, to my mind, crucial that that be completed on schedule."

He noted Canada's first major energy exports to Japan started in 2019 through a propane-export facility that quickly made up a sizable chunk of Japan's supply.

Tiberghien said the two countries also see eye-to-eye on a shift toward green technology, digital innovation and artificial intelligence, all the while decoupling from China.

"There is tremendous interest at doing more with Canada on defence, economic security, green technology, artificial intelligence, lithium, LNG, batteries — you name it," he said.

There has been a recent uptick in visits by Liberal ministers to Tokyo and Trudeau said a trade delegation will head to Japan in the coming year. He also said Japanese companies interested in mining and electric-vehicle battery components aim to visit Canada in the spring.

Burney said the Indo-Pacific strategy hit the right tone, but ought to have included new opportunities for Canadian youth to do exchanges in Japan, similar to the Japan's massive program for English teachers. 

"Few things matter more in Japan than personal relationships," he said. "They often open doors to other opportunities."

Both experts said the countries share so many values and so few irritants that they take each other for granted, focusing more on Washington or Europe.

Part of the current convergence stems from a relative abatement of hostility between Japan and South Korea compared to recent decades.

The memory of Japan's colonization of Korea and human-rights breaches it committed before and during the Second World War flares up when Japanese politicians visit nationalist historical sites, or when Korean leaders bring up forced labour and sexual exploitation.

"Canada could have an interesting, special relationship with both at the same time and maybe play an external role in lessening any tension between them," Tiberghien said.

He said Japan and Korea put an emphasis on anniversaries, and 2023 gives a pretext for Ottawa to hold events that commemorate 95 years of diplomatic relations with Japan and 60 years of the same with South Korea. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press