PM Tony Abbott made a rather less impressive speech, which was more controversial in its content. While not directly praising those Japanese submariners that attacked Sydney Harbour in 1942, Abbott did acknowledge their professionalism, which is something that I have long suspected Abbott might do. If anything, Abbott likes a regimented workforce carrying out a mission though it be doomed, which is what I believe he was trying to convey in his comments. It was not a particularly well thought out section in his speech though, which I also suspect Abbott included himself without referring to others for comment. Abbott could have pointed to the contribution made by Japanese pearlers to the development of Australia’s north, or to those Japanese who, despite the prejudice shown against them, made contributions to Australian society before and during the war. Yet somehow I don’t think these would have resonated as loudly with Abbott, whose admiration for all things military appeared to overcome his better judgement.
As was widely reported in Australia, Abbott’s comments were picked up by Xinhua’s Canberra bureau chief and then commented on in her (English language) blog, while other state owned media organisations in China questioned the meaning and timing of Abbott and Abe’s meeting*. The Chinese government itself, however, was more moderate in its response, merely stating that it hoped that recent developments would not result in countries ganging up on China. As expected, those who have previously questioned the wisdom of Australia drawing closer to Japan in a security relationship voiced those concerns once again, while others pointed out that the fact that China was changing the security dynamic in the region meant that a closer strategic relationship between Australia and Japan was a natural consequence of such behaviour (PDF).
One thing that did strike me as odd was despite the appearance of PM Abe in Oceania and the signing of an EPA and defence agreement with Australia, Japan’s domestic media did not really consider this to be all that news-worthy, with TBS(video) and FNN (video) only devoting about a minute or two’s worth of air time during their news bulletins to Abe’s speech (NHK had a longer segment on the development in Japan-Australia relations the night before the speech). Abe’s speech was regarded in Australia as the second declaration by a visiting leader of democratic principles and security priorities for the region, following on from that of US President Obama in 2011. Yet it does seem as though Japan’s media couldn’t have cared less. The fact that Japan was being borne down on by a super typhoon certainly garnered more attention (understandably), and did North Korea shooting off rockets into the Sea of Japan, yet when the PM made his first overseas visit since the passing of constitutional re-interpretation, most domestic media outlets merely outlined the bare details and moved on. From this, one can only conclude that Australia is still peripheral in the Japanese psyche, not a fundamental part of Japan’s security consciousness that either the US, Europe or India might be.
Perhaps this reflected more of the reality of the relationship than that advocated by governments – that despite the rhetoric, on a fundamental level Australia and Japan’s relations are still developing, and have yet to reach the same level as those of other nations that carry more international weight. While this may be a significant step for Australia, it is one of many such strategies being pursued by Japan to secure its energy, resource, and physical security. Only time will tell to what extent this relationship will grow, for neither side has any interest, at present, in the sudden expansion of security ties across the board (which would include the formation of an alliance). Both sides are comfortable with the current state of their alliance with the US, and neither sees any need to be provocative (Julie Bishop’s comments last week on relations with China might belie that observation, although she does have her reasons, and hysteric op-eds from state run media won’t do China’s cause any good in convincing Bishop to act otherwise).
Although Abe’s visit to Oceania was a success, his return to Japan brought with it some unwelcome news for the incumbent government. Over the weekend the gubernatorial election for Shiga Prefecture was held, resulting in the election of former DPJ (now independent) member Mikazuki Daizo, a fervent critic of the Abe government. Analysis of the electoral result put the loss for the LDP/New Komeito down to a protest vote at the passing of the re-interpretation of the Japanese Constitution without adequate Diet scrutiny, and anger at LDP members heckling female opposition members in the Tokyo Municipal Assembly (J). On Monday PM Abe himself acknowledged that the government’s explanation for re-interpreting the Constitution had been lacking, and that this would need to be rectified (J).
Meanwhile Abe’s popularity rating continues to fall, with the support rate dropping below 50% for the first time since Abe was elected almost two years ago (J). The recent controversies of constitutional re-interpretation, coupled with the imposition of security legislation, the establishment of the NSC, and the Diet revision of the Kono Declaration, and the decision to re-start nuclear power plants have all contributed to damaging Abe’s support level, a situation that the powers that be within the LDP/New Komeito must be well aware of. The next few weeks will most likely see a range of legislation dealing with domestic issues raised in the Diet, most notably the desire of PM Abe to increase the level of female participation in the federal bureaucracy to 30% of all positions. The old sticking point of the Futenma base might also raise its head, together with the issue of nuclear energy. Out of the frying pan into the fire, one might say.
* “Japan pushes for closer ties”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 July 2014, p. 1,4 “World citizen Japan prepares for the worst”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 July 2014, p. 4 “Chinese threat cannot be named”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 July 2014, p. 4 “A horror from the past, an offer of condolence, a moment to stop time”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 July 2014, p. 4,5 “’No limits’ as Japan opens arms to trade”, The Australian, 9 July 2014, p. 1,4 “Genuine warmth in the Abe-Abbott partnership”, The Australian, 9 July 2014, p. 4 “’Sincere condolences’ for Kokoda and Sandakan”, The Australian, 9 July 2014, p. 4 “’Ms Fraser, you were Australia’”, The Australian, 9 July 2014, p. 4 “Orator hits the mark in speech”, The Australian, 9 July 2014, p. 4.
*“Take care with reputation”, The Canberra Times, 9 July 2014, Times2, p.1,4 “New relationship not without costs”, The Canberra Times, 9 July 2014, Times2, p.2
*“Japan warns of China threat”, The Australian Financial Review, 9 July 2014, p. 1, 4
*“Abe-struck Abbott on the outer with China? Think again”, The Australian, 11 July 2014, p. 8