During Shinzo Abe’s three-day visit to Canberra, the first by a Japanese prime minister since 2002, much emphasis was placed on the closeness of Australia-Japan relations.
Prime Minister Abe gave a symbolic speech in a special joint sitting of Parliament on 8 July affirming a new era in the Australia-Japan relationship. Speaking in English, he spoke of the development of a “a new special relationship” between the two Asia-Pacific powers, stating “Let us walk forward together, Australia and Japan with no limits. Yes, we can do it.”
Two agreements were signed during the visit. On 7 July 2014, Prime Ministers Abbott and Abe signed the Japan-Australian Economic Partnership Agreement (JAEPA). The JAEPA will allow Australian businesses and consumers to gain better access to Japanese markets and enhance competition. Japan is currently Australia’s second biggest trading partner and it is estimated that once the JAEPA is fully integrated more than 97% of Australia’s exports to Japan will receive preferential or duty-free access.
Then on 8 July 2014, the Prime Ministers signed an Agreement on the Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology which was described by Minister for Defence David Johnston as “an important milestone” in defence and scientific cooperation.
Relations With China
A central issue arising from the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to Australia is its potential effect on Australia’s relationship with China. Prime Minister Abbott’s comments commending Japanese submariners for showing “skill and honour” during the World War II received a strong negative response from China’s official news agency.
Concerns over greater cooperation between Australia and Japan on defence and security policy will heighten this issue as it may be perceived that the US, Japan and Australia are forming a defence cooperation against China’s growing power. Labor Senator Sam Dastyari responded to the visit by saying that cosying up to Japan is an unwise move and Australia should not be seen to be taking sides in disputes.
The visit came in the context of the Japanese cabinet’s recent discussion of the Japanese constitution and lifting the 70-year-long ban on Japanese troops fighting alongside allies overseas. This has not been universally well-received by critics within Japan or overseas. On Tuesday, a group of between 100 and 150 people gathered outside Parliament House in protest of Prime Minister Abe’s visit concerned that the Australian Government was allowing itself to forget Japanese war crimes against Australia during WW II.
An issue remaining between the two countries is the Japanese whaling programme: a subject that seems to have been deliberately sidestepped throughout the PM’s visit. Its only mention was at a joint press conference during which the two prime ministers essentially decided to respectfully agree to disagree.
Despite the indication of closer relations between Australia and Japan as seen in the enactment of JAEPA, issues between the two countries remain.
Katherine Wright is an intern at the AIIA national office. She can be reached at email@example.com.