At first glance, there seems to be plenty of evidence from Tony Abbott's Tokyo visit that, for the Australian leader, the Japan relationship can't get close enough. The much-vaunted FTA was signed. There was an audience with the Emperor (pictured). There was a state welcome with Japanese and Australian flags standing side by side. Mr Abbott became the first foreign leader to address Mr Abe's new National Security Council. 

And there was a summit statement in which the two prime ministers talked about taking the strategic partnership to the next level. It featured just the sort of language that makes realist folk run for the hills: the common values which tie democracies together in ways that can't happen with a non-democracy (at random, let's say China).

Yet it would be too easy to see this visit as the continuation of the trend that Mr Abbott began soon after he was elected, including in his rather stunning remark that Australia was a 'strong ally' of Japan.

An early course-correction to that position was already in the making well before this visit. As I wrote in February, Mr Abe's Yasukuni Shrine visit drew the gentlest of rebuffs from Canberra, with a detectable note of disappointment in comments from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Before the Prime Minister departed for Japan, ASPI's Peter Jennings noted less of the 'all-in with Tokyo' tone in one of Mr Abbott's most significant recent speeches.  And as Abbott was traveling, Julie Bishop's downplaying of the Prime Minister's now famous alliance comments on ABC's Insiders was especially noteworthy. It was almost as if, like China, Japan was to be seen mainly as a trading partner of Australia.

This is where the Japan FTA came in handy.

For the Abbott Government, it is not so important who wins the debate between those who see the FTA as a breakthrough and those who detect a cave-in which complicates the TPP and other processes (covered in Mike Callaghan's post). Rather, the FTA, whether high or low quality, becomes a safe new way for Australia to talk about a close relationship with a more normal Japan. In turn, Japan appears more normal in a non-military sense and with a bigger role on the FTA circuit.

The FTA appears to have dominated coverage in Australia and also, as Matthew Linley has reported, in Japan. By the time the military technology agreement came along, much of the oxygen had been used up. The next stop in Seoul has already produced the second FTA of the trip, and Abbott's entourage is hoping for signs of the free trade triple-crown in Beijing.

China of course will have been watching every step and every word in Tokyo. China does not get a direct mention in the Abe-Abbott summit statement, but it is there implicitly in the references to cooperation against 'common cyber threats' and to avoiding coercion in the resolution of international disputes. As if the meaning of the latter wasn't clear, Mr Abbott commented separately that in territorial disagreements 'there should be no change to the status quo, which is brought about by force or by the threat of force'.

Beijing knows at whom this language is directed. FTAs can take the limelight and they are central to the Abbott Government's economic diplomacy. But they can't obscure everything.

Photo by Flickr user Tony Abbott.