Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Abe's Canberra speech: Dispelling doubts

Abe's Canberra speech: Dispelling doubts

Prime Minister Abe's carefully crafted speech to the Australian parliament gave credence to Prime Minister Abbott's much tut-tutted claim that Japan is Australia's best friend in Asia. The historic speech also clearly helped dispel one doubt about Prime Minister Abe: that he was unwilling to address Japan's World War II past and the pain it caused. Rather, to the surprise of some, Abe started his speech with direct reference to exactly this. 

Alas, some doubts are harder to dispel than others, as shown by Sam Roggeveen's initial thoughts on Abe's speech and the coverage of Abe's visit prior to his arrival. Sam and Hugh White both worry that closer Japan-Australia relations mean Australia is somehow at risk of siding with Japan against China, given the worsening strategic rivalry between the two Northeast Asian neighbours, or of being dragged into a Japan-China war. I am sure many in the Ukraine or Georgia who waited in vain for Western military support may disagree with this logic.

This durable doubt mistakes convergence of interests for commonality of interests. As Abe makes clear in his speech, his main reason for pursuing a free trade agreement with Australia is structural reform of the Japanese economy. This is not the main reason Australia signed onto the deal. Similarly, even if Ian Buruma is correct and Abe's strategic and defence policy reforms are mainly driven by a growing (and rational) fear of China and desire to counterbalance it, Australia and many others can still seek opportunities to strengthen relations with Japan and get more out of Japan even if they do not share these same fears or counterbalancing goals.

Clearly, Australia can benefit from closer defence-technology cooperation with Japan which Abe's relaxation of arms exports facilitates. [fold]

The UK realised this and signed a defence cooperation agreement with no existential angst about moving closer to war with China. Likewise, Abe's more forthright advocacy of adherence to international law when dealing with territorial disputes and Japan's enhanced support for maritime surveillance capacity-building in Southeast Asia are very much in line with long-standing Australian policy goals that were developed without primary consideration of China.

Friendships, special relationships and skilful diplomacy are built upon the recognition of convergence of interests and beliefs. This is different to a commonality of interests and beliefs, and such a convergence does not have to imply required future action. I would hazard that the burgeoning of the China-Australia relationship, despite the huge differences between the two states, is testament to this distinction.

If one accepts that Australian officials and politicians can do their job and realise this difference, it is hard to see how the steps taken by Japan and Australia to foster closer security ties is putting Australia or the Australia-China relationship at any greater risk. Forgoing such opportunities with Japan for doubts that deserve to be dispelled would be an opportunity lost and would raise questions in Japan about how good a strategic partner Australia really is.

 Image courtesy of

You may also be interested in