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Asia, Asian Opinions

Jonathan Pearlman
Saturday, Jul 12, 2014

Asia, Asian Opinions

Political, personal elements driving Abbott’s support for Abe

The Straits Times | Jonathan Pearlman | Saturday, Jul 12, 2014

JAPANESE Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to Australia to meet Australian leader Tony Abbott this week, but he was not quite ready for how much time they would spend together.

First, the two prime ministers held a leaders' meeting of about 90 minutes after Mr Abe's historic speech to Parliament in which he announced the birth of a "special relationship" between the two nations.

Then they sat together on a five-hour flight to the remote Pilbara region, the centre of Australia's mining boom.

Joking afterwards that the flight was twice as long as their summit meeting, Mr Abe noted: "I actually believe that we had deeper discussions on the flight and we will really be able to deepen our relationship."

Even setting aside the long conversation en route to Pilbara, the four-day visit by Mr Abe had certainly strengthened ties to a level that's effectively an alliance, in the view of some observers here.

The deals that sealed this "special relationship" included a free trade agreement which begins in January next year and a defence technology sharing agreement which could allow Australia to purchase Japan's Soryu-class stealth submarines or its high-tech components.

Japanese troops will now also be able to train in Australia, which has offered its vast open flying ranges for Japan's air force pilots.

And Mr Abbott issued a ringing endorsement for Mr Abe's move to re-interpret Japan's pacifist Constitution and allow his troops to fight beside allies in collective self-defence.

This increasing cosiness with Japan, which is Australia's second-biggest trading partner, poses considerable risks for Canberra in its dealings with China, Australia's biggest trading partner.

But there are reasons why Mr Abbott is taking this risky path.

On the political front, he wants to send a signal that he will continue Australia's long-term policy of bolstering its security ties with its closest ally, the United States, and its regional defence partners, even while pursuing trade with China.

Professor Michael Wesley from the Australian National University said Canberra was willing to risk "alarming" Beijing because it wanted to clearly show that it would not brook displays of aggression by China that could threaten regional stability.

"Abbott is signalling to China that it should take note that its behaviour is driving certain security partners in the region together in a way that China dislikes and fears," he told The Straits Times.

Indeed, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has acknowledged that China's assertiveness was prompting Canberra to bolster its security alliances.

"China doesn't respect weakness," she told Fairfax Media.

But there was also a personal element driving Mr Abbott's support for Mr Abe.

Mr Abbott sees himself in a conservative tradition of Australian coalition leaders who tend to place a strong emphasis on the importance of shared values.

As Prof Wesley notes: "The coalition is a strong party of belief in values, that democracy has shared values and shared perspectives, that Australia should be building ties with democracies in Asia, and that you can deal pragmatically with China, but with a longstanding democracy, you need a different class of relationship."

In that light, Mr Abbott sees Japan as a country with which he can identify: a strong stable democracy and a staunch supporter of the US. To him, Mr Abe is someone with whom he can identify: a strong conservative, nationalist leader.

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