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When Japan's PM comes to visit - what does it mean for Australia?

07 July 2014
Tony Abbott with Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe. Photo by AFP.

Shinzo Abe will become the first Japanese Prime Minister to address the Australian parliament when he arrives in Canberra on 8 July.

He is expected to sign a free trade agreement worth billions for Australian businesses, particularly agricultural exporters.

Other key issues on the agenda will be defence and regional security.

Experts from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific canvass the key economic, political and strategic opportunities the visit might bring Australia, while also weighing up how close we should be to Japan, given it is engaged in a dangerous strategic competition with China.

Professor Veronica L Taylor
ANU Japan Institute

"Prime Minister Abe's visit marks an historic shift in the Australia-Japan relationship, beyond the comfort of established trade and investment and into the more complex waters of security and defence cooperation.

“More risk and complexity requires deeper intellectual and research engagement in both directions. We are old friends, but we are not exclusive friends."

Professor Hugh White
Strategic and Defence Studies Centre

“If you believe the newspaper reports we are going to announce a further expansion of our defence relationship with Japan.

“The idea that we are building a strategic relationship with Japan, in Beijing they are inclined to see that as very much directed against them.

“And as their strategic relationship with Japan becomes more and more adversarial, worse and worse, the intimacy between Australia and Japan becomes more and more problematic for China.

“This is the reality of great power and competition. This is the world Australia is living in at the moment. Whereas our political leaders, I think on both sides of politics, are still living in an era where as long as Washington was happy, everything was fine, we don’t live in that world anymore.”

Dr Andrew Carr
Strategic and Defence Studies Centre

“Australian’s are used to two types of relationships. A security relationship with countries much more powerful than us, and trade and diplomacy with everyone else. With Japan we find a new situation, where Australia is increasingly committing to a security relationship with a country which is bigger than us, but would struggle to defend itself, let alone be able to help protect Australia.

“There are a lot of advantages to a closer relationship with Japan, and countries in the region need to build more of these types of links to help sustain the region’s security, rather than just relying on a distracted United States. Given President Obama’s inability to explain, let alone implement the pivot to Asia, Australia will need to consider building deeper security relationships which can help ensure our long term safety, whatever America does.

“However for the time being, Australia needs to decide just how far we would go to support Japan. Are we willing to go ‘all in’ with a country that spends far less on its defence than we do (in terms of GDP) and which is willing to antagonise our major trading partner. Are we prepared to send troops potentially as peacekeepers or into harm’s way to protect another countries claims to remote oil and gas reserves? And what will we get from Japan for these pledges of support?”

Professor Brendan Taylor
Head, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre,

“The temptation for the Abbott government of ever-deepening ties with Tokyo is understandable. Japan is one of the world's leading economies with cutting edge submarine technology that Canberra is very keen to get its hands on.

“As the Asian century unfolds, however, Australia should exercise extreme caution about hitching its wagon to a Japan that is gradually declining, both economically and demographically, and which is engaged in a dangerous strategic competition with China.”


Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki
School of Culture, History and Language

“The Australian government has welcomed the Abe government's recent ‘reinterpretation’ of the constitution to allow Japan to engage in military action overseas.

This is short-sighted for two reasons.

“Firstly, the US, Australia and other allies made a major contribution to Japanese society by promoting democratisation and the rule of law during the post-war occupation. The Japanese cabinet has just demonstrated by its ‘reinterpretation’ that it does not feel bound by the constitution, and can change fundamental aspects at will, without consulting its citizens or courts of law, and in the teeth of majority public opposition. 

“Secondly, the ‘reinterpretation’ has to be seen in regional context. If carefully considered constitutional change had been carried out at a time when Japan had good relations with its neighbours that would be a different matter. But forcing through this ‘reinterpretation’ at a time of very poor relations with neighbours will heighten regional tensions. This is particularly bad for Australia, because we are being put in a position of having to side with China or Japan.

“The result is not just worsening relations between the countries of East Asia, but also potentially worsening relations between Australia and some of our most important economic partners.”

Professor Evelyn Goh
Strategic and Defence Studies Centre

“Japan may be Tony Abbot’s ‘best friend in Asia’, but Japan under Abe Shinzo has fallen out with its immediate neighbours in Northeast Asia, and worried some in Southeast Asia by its more muscular confrontation of China and more explicit moves towards military normalisation.

“Other East Asian countries will be watching how Abe and Abbott leverage their shared strategic priorities, and how Australia might choose to support Japan’s new security activism in the region.

“In light of the easing of Japan’s constitutional constraints on collective self-defence, China in particular will resent deeper Australia-Japan bilateral security cooperation that might be construed as maritime containment.”


Dr Tomoko Akami
School of Culture, History and Language

“Australia may welcome Japan’s recent cabinet decision to reinterpret Article 9 (the Peace Article) of its Constitution, which would allow Japan to conduct collective self-defence.

“Recent opinion polls in Japan, however, suggest an increasing caution among the people against the government's further move to revise the article. Not all supporters for the revision have been concerned only with a much hyped China threat, but they also feel the need for Japan to share a burden in the international society.

“Yet as many do in Australia, they also realise that collective security actions could cause greater instability. One also cannot forget that for some, the Article 9 means Japan's responsibility to explore an alternative approach to security.”

Emeritus Professor Gavan McCormack
School of Culture, History and Language.

"Twenty-first century Japanese governments, especially Abe’s, have been torn between fidelity to the United States on the one hand, and commitment to a particular view of Japanese history and identity on the other. 

They seem oblivious to the incompatibility of the two. The greater their efforts to meet U.S. demands, the more they tend to insist on compulsory flag and anthem rituals, a proud and 'correct' view of Japanese history, and the elevation of Shinto shrine rituals into a central role in national identity formation.

The contradictions between their two loyalties then become increasingly apparent. Attempting to ride these tensions, Abe is leading the country into extreme territory: authoritarian at home while shrill and isolated abroad. His career presents a case study for the difficulty in Japan of balancing a sense of historical memory with one of global direction."



Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team