Chemistry and cooperation to constrain China
23 Dec 2015|


With around 15 hours on the ground, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s mission to Tokyo last Friday was a flying visit of the first order.

The PM’s tight itinerary covered a lot of ground including trade, defence (notably, Japan’s bid for SEA1000), research, education, energy and innovation. He even snagged a selfie with Honda’s ASIMO robot—Japanese soft power incarnate and a prime presser of head-of-state flesh.

The joint statement released by Turnbull and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe checked off a now-familiar laundry list of strategic issues: an opposition to ‘coercive or unilateral actions’ in the South and East China seas, hearty support for the US rebalance to the Asia–Pacific, and a recognition of the challenges of nuclear proliferation, terrorism and North Korea, among others. The whaling issue presented as but a small, seasonal thorn in the side of a ‘special strategic partnership’ that finds strength in ‘common values and strategic interests’.

Despite hope in some quarters, the meeting didn’t produce a visiting forces agreement to continue the institutionalisation of bilateral defence relations. However, Turnbull’s trip to Tokyo—his first to north Asia—built on the 2+2 consultation held recently in Sydney, and continued the trend toward a stronger, deeper and closer security bond between the two US allies.

Such a brief visit was never going to allow the leaders to meaningfully advance any grand ambitions for the bilateral. (To be sure, Abe has many, while Turnbull has given fewer clues.) But it was nonetheless symbolically valuable.

Turnbull’s appearance in Tokyo caps off a busy few months of international diplomacy since arriving in the top job: he’s attended meetings of the G20, East Asia Summit and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation; he’s been in Malta for CHOGM and in Paris for COP21; and he’s had successful bilaterals in both Jakarta and Wellington. (Of course we talk to the Kiwis!)

Squeezing in Tokyo allowed Turnbull to not only uphold the Japan–Australia agreement for annual bilateral leaders’ summits, but a chance to continue his statement on the regional relationships valued by his government. Abe and Turnbull’s get-together came just a month after they first met on the sidelines of the G20 in Turkey, and provided another opportunity to build some of the chemistry that that Abe had in spades with former prime minister Tony Abbott. With the Competitive Evaluation Process expected to conclude in the first half of 2016, Abe-san no doubt appreciated the facetime.

Turnbull’s visit drew the curtains on a busy week for Abe, who spent the previous Friday through Sunday in India being hosted by Prime Minster Narendra Modi. Developments from the Japan–India summit were presented in a joint statement with a hefty banner: Japan and India Vision 2025 Special Strategic and Global Partnership. There were three outcomes of note.

First, Japan is set to provide its Shinkansen bullet train technology to link the 505km run from Mumbai to Abmedabad, and will finance it with a highly-concessional long-term infrastructure loan to the tune of US$12 billion. It’s a win for Modi, who’s seen to be modernising infrastructure and delivering on his ‘Make in India’ initiative; and it’s a win for Abe, who has effectively wielded Japan’s official development assistance program as a strategic tool, and in the process boosted morale after Japan recently lost a $5 billion Indonesian bullet train contract to China.

Second, after five years of back-and-forth, the summit produced a broad agreement on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. While legal and technical ‘differences’ kept a fully-fledged civil nuclear pact out of reach this time around, the agreement effectively functions as Japanese recognition of India as a nuclear power despite not being a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The task now is to iron out the remaining issues before next year’s leaders’ summit in Japan.

Third, the visit saw some big moves on the security side of the house. Two significant agreements were signed: one on defence equipment and technology transfer which will underwrite joint development and export of defence capabilities; and one concerning the protection of classified military information that paves the way for more robust intelligence cooperation. It was also agreed that Japan will become a permanent member of the Malabar naval exercise held annually between the US and India. Japan’s participation in Malabar has oscillated over the years owing to sensitivities in Beijing. That Delhi and DC have brought Tokyo into the tent is another sign that Indo–Pacific powers, and the regional status quo, are increasingly under pressure.

Modi and Abe noted the ‘high degree of congruence of political, economic and strategic interests’ between India and Japan, and the summit built on momentum that’s borne of a deep wellspring of rapport, warmth and chemistry between the premiers. The Indian PM offered soaring praise of the bilateral when he said: ‘I cannot think of a strategic partnership that can exercise a more profound influence on shaping the course of Asia and our interlinked ocean regions more than ours.’ The reference to Abe’s 2007 speech to India’s Parliament was unmistakable. Modi and Abe are steadily leading India and Japan away from the historical positions of non-alignment and pacifism, respectively, toward a new and deeper Asian engagement.

The joint statements released at Abe’s summits with both Modi and Turnbull spoke positively of trilateral cooperation with the US and between Australia, Japan and India. The four countries share not only a range of values and strategic interests, but also concerns about the way in which China is throwing its weight around in the region. The spectre of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue has even been raised as the possibilities are pondered.

It’s important that Australia gets its relationships with Japan and India right, as there’s a lot of positive work we can do together in the security space (the not-quite-quadrilateral) and further afield. With the Australian Parliament out for the summer and Malcolm Turnbull reportedly working through into the New Year, it’s a useful time for the Prime Minster to reflect on his time in Tokyo, on the strategic realities of our region, and on how his government will go about developing Australia’s relations with both Japan and India.