Commentary | 09 July 2014

PM Abe sends a subtle message from Canberra

PM Abe sends a subtle message from Canberra

Rory Medcalf

Australian Financial Review

9 July 2014

Please click here for full online text.

  • Rory Medcalf

PM Abe sends a subtle message from Canberra

Rory Medcalf

Australian Financial Review

9 July 2014

Please click here for full online text.

  • Rory Medcalf

Executive Summary

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's speech to the Australian Parliament on Tuesday was moving, entertaining and substantial. It was also subtle - so much so that some listeners may have missed its strategic significance for Asia.

His address was a milestone in relations between two countries that were once bitter wartime foes. Mr Abe spoke of how Australia and Japan had tolerantly and pragmatically moved beyond history to the point that they had become indispensable economic partners.

He underscored the recently concluded free-trade agreement and the role of Australian energy in Japan's economy. He announced the conclusion of a defence technology partnership, which is being widely speculated as opening the way for talks on eventual submarine co-operation.

Mr Abe also foreshadowed links in youth and education, celebrated sporting ties and praised Australia's help following the disastrous 2011 tsunami. He affirmed the achievement of his government and that of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott in elevating bilateral ties to a "special relationship".

But there was also a bigger canvas. Just as US President Barack Obama once chose Canberra as a platform to outline his administration's pivot to Asia, on Tuesday Prime Minister Abe made it his stage to send a signal to his own country, Asia and the world.

This message is about the strategic role he sees for a more confident Japan. Last week Abe's cabinet approved a historic reinterpretation of Japan's "peace constitution", to allow the Japanese military to assist its allies and partners, including in combat

This is a step to a normalised security posture for Japan, which after decades of good international citizenship has the right and the obligation to be a more active power in support of a rules-based order.

Even so, the constitutional reinterpretation was controversial, not least because it sidestepped the perhaps impossible path of a plebiscite and formal constitutional change. The Canberra speech was a welcome opportunity for Mr Abe to give these defence reforms their proper place in a wider vision. Thus he referred to Australia and Japan moving to "join up in a scrum, like in rugby, to nurture a regional and world order and to safeguard peace". He also referred to the need to ensure that the "vast seas from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian" are kept free and open as a place of prosperity.

As China becomes assertive and sometimes coercive in the way it uses power, Japan and some other countries seek security in numbers.

Japan, like the United States, India, Australia and, in its way, Indonesia, is experimenting with the idea of an IndoPacific strategy. Economic links among regional countries and their energy dependence across the two oceans mean that security tensions - such as in the South China Sea - are no longer just a local problem to be ignored.

Just as China will understandably seek to safeguard its energy interests in the sea lanes, so will Japan. But this is too big a region for any power to dominate. Abe's speech rightly emphasised the role of partnerships, including the United States, in keeping it secure.

This does not mean that Australia should sign up to every element of the new outward-looking Japanese agenda If anyone in Tokyo really has in mind a Japan-centric system of quasi alliances to oppose China as America declines, they will soon find they must moderate such an ambition. In any case, US regional leadership is far from finished yet Still, there is much that can constructively be done. Australian and Japanese forces can and should train together, including with third countries.

The defence technology relationship can go far without meaning a quasi alliance. We should help one another, and third countries, to improve maritime surveillance and to assert principles of rules-based order and non-coercion at sea.

But Canberra should also see closer ties with Japan as an avenue for offering sensible counsel to Tokyo in the way it handles regional tensions.

One way Australia may quietly help is over history. Australia and Japan should make more of their exceptional record of reconciliation, which Abe's speech rightly and quite graciously dwelt on with his references to Kokoda and Sandakan.

Unfortunately, when it comes to China and Soudi Korea, his record of insensitivity over history has hindered Japan's strategic aims - for instance damaging its ability to build security cooperation with Seoul or to neutralise Chinese propagandist conjurings about resurgent Japanese militarism.

Australia may not be able to work as a frank friend to China in the way that Kevin Rudd famously imagined, but there is no reason we cannot seek to play that role with Japan.

Rory Medcalf is director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute.