On Thursday evening, Prime Minister Scott Morrison exchanged views with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in what was billed as a virtual leaders' meeting.
There’s nothing virtual about their leadership – Morrison is proving up to the challenge of strategic disruption, as his recent announcements on defence, cyber security and Hong Kong attest.
And Abe, whatever his political difficulties, has an exceptional legacy. He is Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and has done much to revive his country from its strategic melancholy of a decade ago.
This includes normalising the nation’s security role and deterring Chinese assertiveness over the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. More broadly, Abe has pioneered creative diplomacy to build Indo-Pacific partnerships from India to Australia, south-east Asia to Europe – largely as a response to China’s power and intimidation.
Japan continues to have a greater stock than China of investment in the infrastructure of south-east Asia, and Abe has sought with some success to convert that – and a long record of aid – into diplomatic influence.
As my recent book reveals, a pivotal moment in emerging Indo-Pacific solidarity was the strategic discussion between Abe and India’s Modi when they crossed Japan on a bullet train in November 2016, at the time of Trump’s shock win.
The Lowy Institute’s latest poll reflects starkening differences in Australian attitudes to Japan and China.
China cannot dominate a region where India and Japan truly collaborate, especially with the United States and Australia aligned too; hence the logic of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, that so unsettles Beijing.
Fast-forward to the present, and officials are calling the latest Australia-Japan conversation a meeting rather than a summit, precisely because they expect that before long the leaders can meet in person for the in-depth and confidential dialogue the relationship deserves.
Closest ally in the region
After all, in these confronting times, Japan can lay claim to being Australia’s closest friend in Asia.
Yet on this, at least, Abbott was ahead of his time. The Lowy Institute’s latest poll reflects starkening differences in Australian attitudes to Japan and China. An overwhelming 82 per cent of Australians said they expected Japan to act responsibly in the world. On the same question, the response regarding China was a dismal 23 per cent.
At every recent pass, Beijing’s coercive misstep has been Tokyo’s diplomatic gain: from the Belt and Road power play to rule-breaking in the South China Sea, from economic bullying against Australia to violence on the India-China border, from cyber and political interference to the crushing of free Hong Kong, from full-spectrum rivalry with America to the domestic truth suppression that let COVID-19 slip so catastrophically into the world.
To be sure, Japan has its own troubles, including demographic decline, economic stiffness and failure to resolve its cruel history with South Korea. Still, even a distressed Japan has characteristics that remain the envy of the world. These include material wellbeing, advanced technology, social cohesion, soft power and democratic stability – in short, the resilience that is seeing the world’s third largest economy through these plague times.
Such enduring strengths help explain the quiet successes of recent Australia-Japan relations, and why today’s leaders build on reliable foundations beyond our long ties of trade and investment.
Morrison and Abe talked co-operation in pandemic management and development assistance to the Pacific and south-east Asia.
And crisis response is something our two nations do well: the Quad, after all, began with co-ordinated relief following the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, and Julia Gillard’s Labor government cemented defence co-operation by sending forces to Japan after the Fukushima triple disaster of 2011.
Another agenda item was how to shore up the ragged rules-based order of free trade and international law, and here Abe and Morrison can build on Malcolm Turnbull’s decisive campaign with Japan to salvage the Trans-Pacific Partnership in early 2017, which a saner America may one day rejoin.
But the most remarkable pillar of Australia-Japan diplomacy comprises security and defence.
The dialogue has moved well beyond the disappointment of a lost submarine deal in 2015-16. The idea of equipping the Australian navy with affordable Japanese submarines was so audacious it just may have worked, but that is history now.
Even so, the Australian and Japanese security establishments are close and getting closer in policy, intelligence, military capabilities and operations. It won’t be a formal alliance, though our parallel bonds with the US provide an extra layer of interoperability and trust.
A noted outcome this week was an agreement on space co-operation. It is quite conceivable that new Australian defence satellites will be launched on Japanese rockets, giving us more self-reliance in surveillance, communication and targeting over a region where nearly a lifetime ago we were foes. Our militaries will also intensify training together, although basing and logistics access has moved slowly.
Cyber security, countering propaganda, critical technologies, rare earths and supply chain security remain other contemporary challenges where Australia and Japan are exploring major progress in mutual support.
This partnership will advance by evolution not revolution, but it remains promising, and the Chinese Communist Party’s present hubristic folly makes it more so by the day.
Professor Rory Medcalf is head of the National Security College at the Australian National University.