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Japan and Australia elevate ties with defence and trade deals

Publication Date : 09-07-2014


Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declared the birth of a "special relationship" with Australia that includes heightened defence and economic ties in what some experts describe as the creation of an "informal alliance".

In a historic address yesterday to a joint session of the Australian Parliament  - the first by a Japanese leader - Abe pledged to form a partnership with Canberra to promote "a regional and  world order and to safeguard  peace".

His plan was seen by analysts as a hedge against growing tensions with China, although he later insisted he was open to dialogue with Beijing.

"Let us walk forward together, Australia and Japan, with no limits," he told Parliament. "Yes, we can do it."

China reacted cautiously, with foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei saying Beijing hopes the new defence deal between Japan and Australia is not targeted at any third party.

Speaking in English, which he has done only a handful of times as leader, Abe sought to justify his cabinet's recent decision to reinterpret Japan's post-war pacifist constitution to allow its forces to fight overseas in collective self-defence.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott emphatically endorsed the move.

Abe told Parliament: "As a nation that  longs for permanent peace in the  world, and as a country whose  economy is among the biggest,  Japan is now determined to do  more to enhance peace in the  region, and peace in the world."

Both he and Abbott agreed to elevate their relationship, which involves a new free trade agreement and a defence technology deal. The trade agreement was signed in Canberra yesterday and will come into effect in January.

The defence deal will pave the way for Australia to buy Japan's Soryu-class stealth submarine - or some of its high-tech components - as part of a new fleet of non-nuclear submarines.

Foreign affairs analyst Graeme Dobell, a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Japan and Australia now had "an ally-like relationship without being a full and formal alliance".

He said Japan ranked in Australia's security ties only behind the US, Britain and New Zealand.

 "That is an extraordinary change over only a 15-to 20-year period," he told The Straits Times

At a joint press conference, Abbott described Japan as a "very,  very  close friend of Australia". Using Australian vernacular, he declared: "Give Japan a fair go."

"Japan should be judged on its actions today, not on its actions 70-odd years ago… The lessons from the past have been well and truly learnt," he said.

For his part, Abe said the new relationship  was based on "common strategic interests and universal values".

Dobell said that Japan was keen to strengthen ties with Australia because of concerns about China's rise.

For Australia, Japan  was "the country in Asia we have had the most trouble-free and open relationship with", Dobell said, adding that access to Japan's defence technology was "a direct prize" for Canberra.

Australian National University analyst Hitoshi Nasu told ABC News that "the two leaders are keeping a weather eye open in preparing the two nations for the rapidly changing security environment surrounding them".

Indeed, Abe made no secret of his concerns about tensions with China. While pledging that "the door for dialogue is always open from the Japanese side", he said he had discussed his concerns during a meeting with Abbott.

Abbott said Australia's enhanced ties with Japan should not come at the expense of those with China. "Our region will go forward together in harmony, in peace, or ultimately it won't go forward at all," he said.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a press briefing that cooperation between Australia and Japan should make positive contributions to regional peace and stability.

China's Xinhua news agency also quoted Australian National University strategist Hugh White as saying: "I don't think we should be relying for our submarine capability on a country with whom we may have divergent strategic interests."

Abe arrived in Canberra on Monday for a four-day visit that will also take him to Western Australia's capital Perth and the Pilbara mining region.

In his parliamentary address, Abe also offered "sincere condolences" to the victims of World War II and vowed that Japan would never repeat its aggressive posture.

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