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Japan PM's visit to Australia set to focus on defence ties

Publication Date : 07-07-2014


Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to start a four-day visit to Australia today, the second leg of his first venture abroad after his cabinet's historic decision last week to re-interpret the country's constitution to allow its military to go to the aid of other nations in collective self-defence.

Abe is expected to find support for this move here as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott publicly backed it last October in Brunei.

The move, which comes amid growing tension between Japan and China over territorial claims in the East China Sea, was supported by the United States but was condemned by Beijing.

It is opposed by a majority of the Japanese people.

Abbott and Abe are also set to use this visit to give a public display of friendship between two close regional allies, knowing this will be closely watched by Beijing.

The Australian leader last October told Abe that Japan was Australia's "best friend in Asia", signalling his intention to rebalance Canberra's priorities in Asia.

Abbott believes the previous government was too keen to foster ties with China at the expense of Australia's traditional ties, particularly with Japan.

Abe flies into Canberra today from New Zealand ahead of a historic address to parliament tomorrow, the first such speech by a Japanese prime minister and only the 11th by a foreign leader.

"I wish to build a new era for Japan-Australia relations," he said before leaving Tokyo yesterday.

He is expected to use the speech to defend his nation's right to collective self-defence.

Australian foreign affairs commentator Greg Sheridan said the speech will not only mark a "high point" in Japan-Australia ties but will also be a chance for Abe to address the world on Japan's new strategic stance.

"The world will look to this speech for Abe's vision of Japan's future. Part of that vision will be a broad alignment of Japan with Australia," he wrote in The Australian newspaper last Saturday.

Abe is also due to attend a confidential session of the cabinet's National Security Committee - an invitation not extended to then Chinese President Hu Jintao after his address to the Parliament during his visit in 2003.

Abe and Abbott are also expected to sign a defence technology deal that could help Japan snare a lucrative contract to work on Australia's new fleet of stealth submarines.

The deal comes in the wake of Abe's decision in April to ease Japan's ban on military exports. 

Analysts say Abe's cosy visit to Australia and the show of deepening military ties between Canberra and Tokyo are likely to cause consternation in Beijing.

"It's a very naive assumption to think that Australia could increase defence cooperation with Japan to that extent without evoking some sort of response from China," defence expert Alan Dupont told The Australian Financial Review.

The visit will also focus heavily on trade, coming just three months after the two leaders announced a free trade deal in Tokyo that takes effect next Jan 1. Abe is bringing along a large business delegation.

Japan was eclipsed by China as Australia's biggest trading partner in late 2007 but will be keen to take advantage of the deal to boost its resources intake.

It is still Australia's second biggest trading partner, buying A$37 billion (US$34.6 billion) worth of liquid natural gas, coal and iron ore from Australia, and with total trade reaching A$71 billion (US$66.4 billion). 

Abe will go to Papua New Guinea next.

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