Shinzo Abe used the first speech by a Japanese prime minister to Australia’s parliament to mark the beginning of what he termed a “special” bilateral relationship that will expand into the field of security.
Japan and Australia, key allies of the U.S. as it pivots power into the Asia-Pacific to counter China’s military expansion, signed a trade agreement and an accord on the transfer of defense technology during Abe’s meeting with Prime Minister Tony Abbott today. The trip is the first formal visit by a Japanese premier since 2002.
“Japan and Australia will finally use our relationship of trust, which has stood up through the trials of history, in our cooperation in the area of security,” Abe, 59, told lawmakers. “Japan and Australia have deepened our economic ties. We will now join up in a scrum, just like in rugby, to nurture a regional and world order and to safeguard peace,” he added.
Abe’s cabinet last week passed a resolution expanding the country’s security role to allow it to defend other nations, as he seeks to bolster Japan’s military and its own ability to stand up to China, with which it is locked in a territorial dispute. Abbott has touted Japan as Australia’s “closest friend in Asia” and has pledged to strengthen defense ties at a time when China is flexing its military muscle in the region.
“We hope cooperation between related countries should make a positive contribution to regional peace and stability, not the contrary, and not targeting a third party,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in response to a question about the deal. Japan was responsible for difficult ties with China, Hong added.
Abe’s July 1 decision to reinterpret the pacifist constitution came after he increased defense spending for the first time in more than a decade, clamped down on leaks of state secrets and loosened restrictions on defense exports. It sparked expressions of concern from China, which accused Abe of “fabricating” a Chinese threat for political purposes.
“We want to make Japan a country that will work to build an international order that upholds the rule of law,” Abe said in the speech, in which he did not mention China. “Our desire is to make Japan a country that is all the more willing to contribute to peace in the region and beyond.”
He said he had discussed with Abbott China’s “attempts to change the status quo” in the region and added that Japan’s door was always open to talks with China.
Australia is also seeking to build its defense capacity. The world’s 12th-largest economy must balance its interests between the U.S. -- a strategic ally that has marines based in the northern Australian city of Darwin -- and top trading partner China, which Foreign Minister Julie Bishop criticized last year for proclaiming an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea.
Australia, which is in talks to potentially use submarine technology from Japan, last month reached a “substantial conclusion” to negotiations with Japan in their bid for cooperation in sharing defense equipment and technology, the nations said in a joint statement.
“We will never let the horrors of the past century’s history repeat themselves,” Abe, who is due to return to Australia in November when Brisbane hosts the Group of 20 leaders summit, said in Canberra today. He expressed Japan’s gratitude for the “spirit of tolerance” Australia had shown in the wake of the war.
Abbott, 56, in April announced free-trade pacts with Japan and South Korea during his first North Asian trip since coming to power in September. He is seeking to deepen trade and security ties with Japan while not damaging relations with China.
“Give Japan a fair go,” Abbott told reporters in Canberra today. “At every step of the way since 1945, Japan has been a country which has acted in accordance with the rule of law.”
More than 97 percent of Australia’s exports to Japan will receive preferential access or enter duty free when the trade agreement is fully implemented, Australia Trade Minister Andrew Robb said in a statement today.
The terms of the agreement will see tariffs on frozen Australian beef eventually cut to 19.5 percent from 38.5 percent and those on Japanese cars, household appliances and electronics abolished, according to an April statement by Abbott’s office. Two-way trade in 2013 reached A$70.8 billion ($66.4 billion).
Japan, China and South Korea buy more of Australia’s iron ore, coal and other exports than the rest of its customers combined. Australia is aiming to complete a free-trade deal with China by the end of the year. Abe will visit the West Angelas mine and the city of Perth tomorrow before flying on to Papua New Guinea.
“The Abbott government thinks it can have its cake and eat it too; tighten security ties with Japan and have no negative implications for its economic relationship with China,” said James Reilly, a senior lecturer in Northeast Asian politics at the University of Sydney. “Whether Beijing takes the same view is still an open question.”
(The spelling of Abbott was corrected in the headline of an earlier version of this story.)