As Prime Minister Tony Abbott dusts himself down after what might be the first of a number of challenges to his leadership, interest in Japan about Australian politics is acute. Japanese political elites are focused on Australia’s fratricidal tendencies not because they enjoy bloodsport, but because Japan has a significant investment in the Abbott government.
If Abbott loses office, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will, oddly enough, suffer a not inconsiderable setback.
Japan and Australia have long been key trading partners. Since the mid-2000s they have worked actively to broaden their co-operation into the security sphere.
Both sides of politics have supported this process. Then-prime minister John Howard signed a landmark security declaration in 2007. Labor governments inked agreements on defense servicing and information sharing. Within the public service and defense force there is a strong consensus driving closer work in a range of spheres.
But the election of the Abbott government in 2013 led to a rapid acceleration of activity. Tightening the links with Japan became a fundamental priority for the government. This was perhaps symbolized with one of Abbott’s first utterances on foreign policy as prime minister – the claim that Japan is Australia’s “closest friend” in Asia.
Reciprocal state visits in 2014 led to the rapid conclusion of the long-stalled free trade agreement, a defense technology treaty and the prospect that Japan will be closely involved in the development of Australia’s next-generation submarines. Like Abe, Abbott seemed to be in a hurry to strengthen and deepen ties between the two countries.
Many of the recent developments in Australia-Japan relations are not uncontroversial. The free trade agreement did entail considerable movement by Japan, but its conclusion involved Australia giving up many of its aims on agricultural liberalization. There was much consternation among others negotiating with Japan that Australia had “broken ranks” and eased up pressure on the issue. The logic behind its signature was overwhelmingly political.
Explicitly tying Australia to Japan brought costs in the management of relations with China, Australia’s top trading partner. These developments have been almost entirely driven by Abbott. A change, whether to a different Liberal prime minister or to a Labor government, would pose very significant questions about the sustainability of recent trends.
For the Abe government the doubts about Abbott’s longevity as prime minister are very real.
In the most immediate sense, Japan is worried about the prospects of the submarine deal collapsing. Japan’s defense industry is world-class but due to tight political constraints it has not been able to access global markets for its products.
The benefits of both financially doing well out of the submarine contract but also industrially learning how to do this kind of business are very substantial. Without Abbott these would be at some risk. To shore up support during the recent challenge, Abbott apparently shifted policy to promise a “competitive evaluation process.” Even with an Abbott government, the deal remains vulnerable to domestic pressures.
But it is in the larger strategic dimensions of the relationship that Abe would feel the loss of his friend. The Abe government is overseeing a significant transformation of Japan’s foreign and security policy. Prompted both by what it perceives to be a dangerous international environment as well as a desire to shift how Japan sees itself, Abe is attempting to create a Japan that has a strategic weight that matches its economic heft.
This move is risky and requires deft political handling and international support. It is here that Abbott has been so vital. Australia’s position in the region and Abe’s vision for the region are almost entirely aligned.
Nick Bisley is executive director of La Trobe Asia and professor of international relations at La Trobe University.