The prime ministership of Abe Shinzo has had a considerable impact on the relationship between Japan and Australia, as well as Canberra’s own foreign policy perspectives. The two countries have come to see each other as their central security partner outside of their respective alliances with the United States, and their most reliable partner with Washington in its current unpredictable state. The two countries have also been staunch advocates of maintaining a system of liberalized trade and mutually beneficial rules of behavior in both Asia and globally.
Abe’s influence as a “strategic organizer” stemmed from his first, short-lived, time as Prime Minister. His 2007 speech to the Indian Parliament titled the “Confluence of the Two Seas” would become the founding text of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept, a geopolitical framework formulated in response to China’s rise as world power. The idea was then formalized into Japanese foreign policy, and subsequently adopted by the US, or at least by the State Department. Although Australia avoids using the terminology “free and open” - preferring “stable and prosperous” - it has internalized the ideals, and enthusiastically embraced the use of “Indo-Pacific” as its preferred name for its region, seeking to project itself as a “two oceans power”.
The double impact of China’s increasing assertiveness and the presidency of Donald Trump has had a profound psychological impact on both Japan and Australia. The certainties that both countries have had for three-quarters of a century are being significantly eroded. Japan and Australia both now have their largest trading partner in China, a revisionist power increasingly hostile to global norms, and a primary ally who has become suspicious of alliances and free trade, fond of authoritarians, and displaying a distaste for multilateralism. This has led both Canberra and Tokyo to increasingly turn to each other for security and certainty.
Although much of the groundwork for this closeness was laid prior to the Trump presidency. Since signing their Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation during Abe’s first term in 2007 there has been a consistent trajectory towards enhancing and escalating their security pact. The relationship further developed as a Comprehensive Partnership in 2008, and upon Abe’s return this was elevated to Special Strategic Partnership in 2014. Over this period - and to the present - bilateral and trilateral (with the US) military exercises have been regularly conducted, including combat operations, anti-submarine warfare, air force maneuvers.
Its concerns about this shifting global landscape has seen Abe’s prime ministership gradually chip away at the restrictions placed on Japan after World War II. Although Australia would not explicitly endorse this, they have clearly welcomed these developments, placing their trust in Japan to use its capabilities in a way that would also benefit Australia. Although Canberra would remain wary about how Tokyo's trajectory towards normalization would affect the delicate tensions in North-east Asia. Three of Australia’s four largest trading partners are in their region (China, Japan, and South Korea), making its stability an imperative for Canberra.
This sensitivity to regional stability may have been a factor in Australia eventually deciding to purchase its new submarine fleet from France, when it seemed that Japan’s Soryu-class submarines were likely to be Australia’s choice. This would have been the first practical implementation of the new principles the Abe government had adopted towards the transferring of Japanese-produced defense equipment. A policy shift that would have been noticed in Beijing, Seoul and Pyongyang, and therefore deemed too adventurous by risk-averse Canberra.
Despite Australia baulking at the opportunity to deepen its security relationship with Japan in this manner, this did not affect the two countries’ desire to continue to cooperate on other major initiatives. When Trump decided to pull the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and it seemed like the deal would fall apart, Abe and then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull were able to resurrect the agreement with all the remaining eleven participants to bring it into effect by the end of 2018.
While losing the US limits the geostrategic impact of the TPP, creating a new regime of liberal, transparent, and equitable rules to govern international trade and investment through many of the major economies within the Pacific rim (13.4% of total global gross domestic product) is a notable achievement. One that demonstrated how Australia and Japan both see their interests tied to an open global economic system, and multilateral institutions. Abe and Turnbull made sure the option for the US to rejoin will be available when a new President sees fit.
As two middle powers, Australia and Japan share a common set of values and interests in maintaining a consistent rules-based international order. The trajectory the two countries were on in developing a much closer relationship built on these common bonds has been accelerated by China’s increasing assertiveness and America’s increasing dysfunction. Although both remain heavily reliant on Washington for their security, the inclination during Abe’s tenure to form a closer relationship with each other is evident of how concerned they are by President Trump, and more broadly the political turbulence in the US.
When the new Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide took office his first phone call to a foreign leader was not to President Trump, but instead to Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison. A sign that he sees the close relationship that has been built by his predecessor as an inheritance he is keen to maintain and further enhance.
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI.