Abe’s visit will be the first by a Japanese prime minister since 2002 and comes just days after Japan’s Cabinet approved a government proposal which allows the country’s military to play a larger international role and aide a friendly country under attack. The move was welcomed by Canberra and Washington, but condemned by Beijing.
The Japanese PM arrives in Australia on Monday after visiting New Zealand and is expected to attend a meeting of the cabinet-level National Security Committee and address parliament – the first Japanese leader to do so – and meet his counterpart Australian Tony Abbott. Both leaders are set to talk about how to bolster economic ties and deepen cooperation on defense matters. Abe will end his trip with a two-day stay in Papua New Guinea, the first visit by a Japanese prime minister in three decades.
In a DW interview, Hugh White, professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, says Abe’s visit to Australia will be a chance for both countries to demonstrate their strengthening strategic partnership at a time when tensions in Asia are rising.
DW: How important is Abe’s visit for the burgeoning Japanese-Australian ties, both on the political and economic level?
White: “Australia takes the view that Japan has the right to defend itself and that its post-war record of responsible conduct means we should not worry about resurgent militarism”
Hugh White: This is the first visit by a Japanese prime minister to Australia for many years. Japan is a very significant country to Australia, both as a major trading partner and as a big regional power, so there will be major economic issues to discuss. But what makes this visit especially important, and indeed historic, is the strategic context in which it takes place.
Asia’s strategic order is changing as China’s power grows and as questions are raised about future US engagement in the region. This raises big issues about Japan’s future role in Asia, and the kind of strategic and defense links that might develop between Japan and regional countries like Australia.
What issues will take center stage during the visit?
Australia and Japan have been slowly developing closer defense ties for many years, but this process has accelerated sharply since Abe became PM in Japan and Abbott took office in Australia. We can expect further big steps in this direction to be the central focus of Abe’s visit this week.
Both leaders are expected to sign a defense technology cooperation agreement, and to promote cooperation on submarine acquisition. But beyond these practical measures, the most important is that the visit will be a chance for both sides to demonstrate their strengthening strategic partnership at a time when tensions in Asia are rising.
PM Abe is also expected to address a joint sitting of parliament in Canberra, the first Japanese prime minister to do so. How significant will this speech be and what issues are likely to feature in it?
This is a very significant speech. I have no doubt it will touch on economic and social contacts between Australia and Japan, but we can expect the key focus to be on strategic and political questions. Abe will most probably use his speech to highlight the very strong strategic relationship he wants to develop with Australia, and show Japanese and regional audiences that Australia strongly supports his radical changes to Japan’s defense policy. And he will argue for an even closer defense relationship in future.
How important is Japan to Australia, especially in terms of defense?
Japan is vital to Australia economically – for many years it was the country’s main trading partner, and right now it is the second largest after China. But it hadn’t been important to Australia in defense terms until now. For a long time, the only real link we had was that we were both allies of the US. But over the past decade or so a defense relationship has slowly developed through cooperation on issues such as peacekeeping. Only in the last few years has this relationship gained new momentum.
Japan’s Cabinet recently expanded the military’s role to collective self-defense. What is Australia’s stance on this issue and why?
Australia has supported Japan’s new and expanded defense posture. It takes the view that Japan has the right to defend itself and that its post-war record of responsible conduct means we should not worry about resurgent militarism.
White: “Cooperation in defense matters has accelerated ever since Abe became PM in Japan and Abbott took office in Australia”
Abe and PM Abbot are also expected to rubber-stamp a long-awaited free trade agreement (FTA). How important is this deal?
The new FTA will be valuable, but is not expected to have a huge impact on trade as the trading relationship is already very strong.
How is China, Australia’s largest trading partner, likely to react to Abe’s visit?
China is bound to respond negatively to any further development of defense relations between Australia and Japan. They will assume, correctly, that such measures are, to a large degree, directed against China.
Hugh White is professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University. His work focuses primarily on Australian strategic and defense policy, Asia-Pacific security issues, and global strategic affairs.
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