The Buzz

Japan and Australia: Ready, Willing and Abe

Australia is developing the habit of balancing an address to the Parliament by an Asia-Pacific ally with a matching speech by China’s President.

The contentious words in that sentence are “balancing” and “ally,” even if the pattern is evident.

In October 2003, US President George W. Bush and China’s President Hu Jintao addressed the Australian Parliament on consecutive days. Both were visiting Oz for the APEC summit in Sydney. Previously, only American presidents had addressed Parliament (Bush Senior, 1992; Bill Clinton, 1996).

Hu’s address could properly be described in a parliamentary monograph as “a moment of great ceremonial and symbolic significance,” representing “a high point in the Howard Government’s engagement with China.”

Tweaking those phrases, Shinzo Abe’s Canberra address tomorrow is a moment of symbolic significance, marking an economic high point and a security exclamation mark in the Abbott Government’s embrace of Japan. Abbott’s best mate in Asia is calling. Note this is the first Japanese PM to get to Canberra since 2002—perhaps that explains the need for a “new” special relationship.

Abe will join Abbott for the signing of the Australia-Japan free trade agreement and for a defense cooperation agreement for sharing equipment and technology. The defense deal is a step towards a next-generation Australian submarine with a Japanese diesel-electric drive chain and an American weapons system. Abe and Abbott will be in equal agreement when Abe gives another version of his speech announcing Japan is back as a defense and security player.

This year’s balancing parliamentary address from China will come in November when Xi Jinping visits for the G20 summit. That word “balancing” is useful in denoting the equal honor offered to two important Asian partners, as a reference to the US rebalance, and to discussion of Asia’s balance of power and balancing against the rising power.

Referring to Japan as an “ally” is where the semantics compound. The Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation that John Howard and Shinzo Abe signed in 2007, expressed an important and growing security partnership. The pact does not amount to a formal alliance; it’s not a treaty to be invoked if ships clash and missiles fly. Yet, increasingly, Australia and Japan act as allies, from cyber to submarines to Asia’s future.

A great impetus for this ally-type behavior is that Japan and Australia are both allies of the same ally. In the trilateral relationship with the US, the Japan–Australia leg is the weakest, but it’s getting more exercise. Here’s the DFAT-speak version:

“Australia and Japan now have a strong and broad-ranging partnership. Australia and Japan have taken practical steps to address regional and global strategic challenges of mutual concern. The United States is both Australia’s and Japan’s most important strategic ally, and the three countries progress cooperation on strategic issues through the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue.”

In his Shangri-La speech on Japan’s role in Asia’s security future, Abe referred to Abbott’s visit to Tokyo in April and gave this alliance-lite description

“We clearly articulated to people both at home and abroad our intention to elevate the strategic partnership between Japan and Australia to a new special relationship.”

Shinzo Abe will give a speech to Parliament on Japan’s intentions towards Australia that will be stronger in tone and temper than that of any previous Japanese leader. The man who signed the 2007 pact is back to give it a boost. The speech will express Abe’s personality and his past as well as his vision of Japan’s future. 

The headline on this piece plays on the phrase ‘ready, willing and able.’ Ponder if Abe will be able. He’s showing willing in the reinterpretation of the Constitution for collective self-defense (warmly welcomed by Australia) and the rewrite of the Japan-America defense guidelines, the first big overhaul in nearly two decades. Will he be able to get Japan to embrace and entrench that new mindset? Invective from China and South Korea might aid Abe, but will Japan truly commit?

The answer will define Abe as either a passing political outlier who couldn’t break the Japanese mold or the model for future leaders. Some of Abe’s habits of mind—especially his understanding of history as expressed by his Yasukuni shrine compulsion—play to the outlier view, even if those same qualities of will and self-belief make him a potential mold-breaker. Abe’s greatest external asset in his push to remodel Japan’s military role isn’t the US—it’s China’s recent belligerence and the moments of madness from China’s protectorate, North Korea. 

Abe’s parliamentary address will be more than a measure of what sort of ally Japan wants to be for Australia. It’ll be a measure that can be set beside—or balanced against—the picture Xi Jinping paints when he takes the same stage in November.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. This article was first published by ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: Flickr.