In their foreign policy document (released on Thursday evening last week, two days before the election), the Coalition placed Japan as second in the list of five priority nations with which it plans to improve and expand ties. In describing its approach to Japan, the Coalition said …”As well as giving priority to expanding economic relations by finalising the Australia-Japan free trade agreement, the Coalition will build a stronger strategic partnership with Japan based on the Howard Government’s Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation and the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue;” (p.4). This is in keeping with the Coalition’s focus on putting economics ahead of other foreign policy concerns (a line also included in the document), while reiterating the well-worn rhetoric in praise of the Howard government’s achievements in forging closer defence ties with Japan.
Certainly in regard to defence and security issues, both sides will be keen to improve on what has gone before. Senator David Johnston, the Defence Minister Elect from Western Australia, has made no secret of his affinity for Japan, having studied there briefly in his student days. Senator Johnston has often asked whether negotiations were being conducted with Japan over technology related to Sōryu class submarines, and has stated that as Defence Minister he would re-open the options available to government for the next generation of submarines for the RAN. Expectations are that with the development of trilateral dialogue together with the United States (which will be boosted by events such as this scheduled in October), defence relations between Japan and Australia will reach a new level of co-operation under a Coalition government, not least because PM Abe also shares a desire to forge such ties.
For his part, Tony Abbott believes that Japan is Australia’s ‘greatest friend’ in Asia, and sees in Japan another model democracy in the region which shares Australia’s sense of values (just don’t mention the whales). While Abbott has certainty stated that both countries have their differences, he does not think they are insurmountable (although it must be said that he has not really explored the relationship in great depth. His speech to the JIIA in 2010 emphasised the rise of China and regional cooperation far more than the ties between Australia and Japan, but to his credit he did state that he wanted to strengthen defence, economic, educational and cultural exchange, a forerunner to New Colombo Plan that the Coalition announced in March this year).
Abbott certainty looks upon Japan as a reliable partner in the Asia Pacific, and one with which Australia can supplement its relationship with the US. Australia’s position as president of the UNSC throughout September and accession to the G20 leadership on December 1st will also make Australia a more attractive prospect for the Abe government, as will the pledge by Abbott to have an FTA (EPA) signed with Japan as a matter of urgency.
Despite the degree of media coverage devoted to whaling in Australia, neither Abbott nor Bishop have sought to antagonise Japan by using confrontational language with regard to either Japan’s whaling program or the case currently under review in the International Court of Justice (a marked contrast, it must be said, to the rhetoric of Peter Garrett, Tony Burke and Mark Dreyfus). While Greg Hunt (the Coalition’s Environment Minister Elect) might release statements condemning any attempt by Japan to engage in whaling while the ICJ case continues in The Hague, the Coalition will not be inclined to pursue the issue with as much vigour as the Labor government did, knowing that aggravating bilateral ties for the sake of placating environmental groups such as the Greens is not in the long term interests of the country or, more importantly, the economy.
If there is a potential spanner in the works between the two centre right governments and their ability to co-operate, it could come in the form of concerns regarding Foreign Minister Elect Julie Bishop and her contact with senior members of the Chinese Communist Party. As was outlined by Andrew Pickford for the Lowy Interpreter blog, Bishop maintains ties to individuals active on behalf of Chinese SOEs (i.e., Alexander Downer, former foreign minister and a board member of Huawei Australia. Bishop herself has participated in many Coalition delegations to visit the headquarters of Huawei in Shenzen, and has accepted gifts from Huawei). Her corporate legal background and links to the West Australian Court dynasty make her an attractive prospect for any nation interested in gaining access to raw minerals, which could make her a prime target for intense lobbying by Chinese SOEs interested in expanding their share of ownership of mining projects.
The enthusiasm that Bishop has shown for engaging with China and the Chinese leadership has certainty gained her attention in Australia for reasons of diplomatic expediency, yet it has also raised questions as to whether she is too ‘close’ to China to forego any opportunities that may come at the expense of Japan or the US. While expectations are that Bishop will not exercise ‘inventive’ or ‘individualistic’ diplomacy and will act in deference to Tony Abbott, the fact that Bishop last undertook a visit to Japan in 2009 (while Japan was under the DPJ rule of Hatoyama Yukio) means that she is (and Tony Abbott for that matter) an unfamiliar entity to most of Japan’s current political leaders (Bishop was Minister for Education, Science and Training under the Howard government during the first Abe administration, while Abbott was Minister for Health and Aging – both portfolios do not call for a great amount of foreign policy experience).
Abbott has stated that China’s economic influence over Australia’s economy means that he will visit Beijing following a visit to Jakarta, with a visit to Tokyo thereafter. Given Abbott’s desire to strengthen security and economic ties between Australia and Japan, the placing of China ahead of Japan in order of preference might upset some observers in Tokyo (who might benefit by reading this piece by Shiro Armstrong vis-à-vis Kevin Rudd’s first visit abroad in 2008) and raise questions over Abbott’s intentions, but this would fundamentally confuse Abbott`s economic concerns with long term strategic interests. Abbott and Abe have many shared ambitions for the region, and will certainly seek to reinforce their ties with the US (leading to a triumvirate led by Abe, Abbott, and Obama – for the military enthusiasts out there, perhaps this should be dubbed the Triple A for the sake of brevity) while simultaneously expanding trade between both countries. It augurs well for the relationship.