In a sense, one could suggest that Abbott is trying to emulate John Howard in creating a pro-active stance towards Japan, re-establishing the ties that Howard had with the LDP (and PM Abe) later in his prime ministership. Certainly Abbott appears to be far more relaxed in dealing with Japan than he does with China, for while Abbott appreciates the significance of China in regional development, he is particularly careful in his rhetoric towards China, neither attempting to give too much credence or criticism towards China lest it be misinterpreted by others as endorsing or repudiating Beijing. Given Japan’s status as an ally of the US, this makes the task of bilateral relations much easier from Abbott’s point of view, particularly considering his affinity for parliamentary democracies. One also gets the sense that Abbott is particularly impressed by Japan’s stoicism and reputation for efficiency, and that he sees in Japan a reflection of his own determination and desire for a reputation for being both courteous and reliable.
The Coalition itself has often expressed its support for Japan and the affinity of its members towards Japan (most notably here), and Abbott may indeed be merely reflecting the party’s mood towards Japan. Yet I suspect that Abbott himself has wanted to promote the bilateral relationship, for in creating improved relations with Japan Abbott will be able to claim it as a diplomatic success and evidence of how seriously the Coalition takes the need for closer engagement with Asia. It does not come with the political baggage of complex relations with Southeast Asian nations (notably Indonesia), and avoids the potential minefield of trying to improve relations with China while at the same time expressing concern about China’s territorial ambitions vis-à-vis the Philippines or Vietnam.
While China represents the current economic reality for Australia, Abbott may in fact be seeking to diversify foreign investment by encouraging those nations (Japan, South Korea) to further invest in Australia, thereby keeping Australia’s assets in the hands of more diplomatically ‘reliable’ partners who (primarily) operate according to trade conventions and who do not seek to use investment as leverage in diplomatic negotiations (thereby upsetting the Coalition’s minor partner, the Nationals). Abbott’s bilateral dialogue with Japan is just beginning, and promises much for the foreseeable future.