OTTAWA – Japan’s visiting prime minister was keen to talk with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Tuesday about Canadian shale gas exports to his energy-hungry country — before telling the world about his country’s priorities at the United Nations.
Energy was one area of common ground shared by Harper and Shinzo Abe during his brief visit to Ottawa on Tuesday before both leaders headed to New York, and the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.
The UN, however, is where one key difference between them will emerge: unlike Abe, Harper won’t address the assembly — a decision seen by some analysts as part of an ongoing snub of the world body.
Abe, who is scheduled to address the General Assembly on Thursday, views the UN as an important forum for his country to engage with the world.
Abe told a joint press conference with Harper on Parliament Hill that he wanted to tell the international community about his plans for improving Japan’s economy and contributing to world peace.
“That is why I am making a speech at the United Nations General Assembly,” he said.
Harper said it is not the common practice of Canadian prime ministers to address the General Assembly each year.
“Usually this week in September, I and my ministers do go to New York for economic and political activities as well as activities related to the UN’s operations,” Harper said.
“And I will take part in those other types of activities and I will be making other speeches.”
Paul Dewar, the NDP foreign affairs critic, said Harper is making a mistake in skipping a chance to speak to the world body.
“It’s either he isn’t interested in participating in the United Nations or he doesn’t think there’s much value in terms of what we can contribute,” Dewar said. “I simply would argue that it is an opportunity and we shouldn’t miss it.”
Japanese officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on the record, acknowledged that Abe’s views were in sync with Harper’s signature project from the Canadian-hosted 2010 G8 summit: the Muskoka Initiative aimed at lowering the death rate of young mothers and children in poor countries.
This week, rather than address the assembly, Harper will instead take part in a side event on maternal and child health. He will also attend a talk on the economy hosted by the Canadian American Business Council.
“As you know, the prime minister has delivered UN General Assembly speeches in the past — in fact, twice as many times as the two former Liberal prime ministers,” said spokesman Carl Vallee.
Canadian officials said Harper will make an announcement Wednesday morning on maternal and child health, to bolster Canada’s commitment to the cause.
“It will give the prime minister the opportunity to continue to exercise international leadership on maternal health, which is an issue close to his heart,” Vallee said.
The federal government agreed to spend $1.1 billion between 2010 and 2015 on a global action to reduce maternal and infant mortality and improve the health of mothers and children in the world’s poorest countries. A further $1.75 billion was announced later as ongoing spending on maternal and child health programs.
Harper’s sole public event on Wednesday is a panel discussion in New York with Melinda Gates, founder and co-chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete; Jens Stoltenberg, the prime minister of Norway; and UN deputy secretary general Jan Eliasson.
On Tuesday, Harper welcomed Abe to his Parliament Hill office, where they explored options around Canada’s shale gas deposits. They sent the issue to their ministers for follow-up.
Japanese officials say that their country is looking for alternatives to nuclear energy following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that crippled reactors at the Fukushima plant.
Japan’s natural gas imports have increased since the earthquake, while prices remain high, said Abe.
“Canada, endowed with rich energy resources, including natural gas, has a very high potential in the context of energy co-operation,” said Abe.
“With a view to securing a stable supply of (liquefied natural gas) at competitive price, we look to the progress of the ministerial level consultations.”
Harper said energy was the “hottest issue” that was discussed in a meeting with Abe and a cross section of Canadian business leaders.
“We have special assets to offer there and obviously Japan is the largest single importer of energy products in the world. So there’s obviously a natural partnership there.”
Harper has made energy exports to Asia a key economic priority because of delays by the United States in approving the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Canadian oilsands bitumen to the Gulf coast.
Harper also announced an agreement in principle towards a treaty that would allow logistical support between the Canadian Armed Forces and the Japan’s Self-Defence Force.
Harper will be joined by a team of Conservative ministers in New York this week.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is to give Canada’s address to the General Assembly on Monday, a less-than-desirable speaking slot that follows this week’s world leaders. U.S. President Barack Obama took the podium on Tuesday.