Australia conducted “condolence diplomacy” during the state funeral of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo on September 27. On the same day, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio held a summit meeting with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Kishida also held an informal meeting with Albanese as well as three former Australian prime ministers, John Howard, Tony Abbott, and Malcolm Turnbull, who had visited Japan to attend the state funeral.
“I brought with me three former prime ministers here as a sign of respect… of the significance of the relationship between Australia and Japan” Albanese said in Tokyo.
Abbott described Abe as a “best friend of Australia” and Turnbull noted that “We mourn Shinzo Abe [sic] as a friend, but the world will miss his wisdom.” Albanese paid tribute to Abe as a “true leader and true friend of Australia.”
The bipartisan delegation symbolizes the close bilateral relationship forged by Abe, the longest-serving Japanese prime minister. Indeed, during the Abe administration, the Australia-Japan relationship developed to the level of a so-called “quasi-alliance” and a “special strategic partnership” in the changing global and regional security environment.
In a letter to Nikkei Asia on October 2, Howard wrote that “I was privileged to work with him as a fellow prime minister during the last two years of my term in office.” Describing Abe as someone “who displayed statesmanship and courage,” Howard added that the late prime minister “will long be remembered in Australia not only as a great Japanese leader, but as a man who did so much to strengthen the friendship between the two nations.”
In March 2007, Abe and Howard announced the Australia-Japan Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation (JDSC) to further bilateral security cooperation. The JDSC was an outcome of bilateral security cooperation in post-conflict peace operations in Cambodia, Timor-Leste, and Iraq, and it became a foundation for the bilateral strategic network in the age of the rising China.
As middle powers, both Japan and Australia have been in a difficult position of balancing between the decline of the United States and the rise of China in the process of a global power transition. Both countries are U.S. allies but have benefited from China’s growing economy, especially after the global financial crisis of 2007-08. Japan was the largest trade partner of Australia from 1967 to 2009, until China surpassed Japan in 2010. China has also been one of Japan’s top trade partners, and hence the two nations’ economic ties cannot be overlooked despite the China-U.S. strategic rivalry. The China factor has been one of the major issues for both Tokyo and Canberra, and Abe and successive Australian prime ministers have worked together to balance between Washington and Beijing.
In 2016, the leadership change from Barack Obama to Donald Trump in the United States influenced policymaking processes in Tokyo and Canberra. Whereas Obama had adopted a “rebalance to Asia” strategy, Trump originally suggested that the United States should consider withdrawing U.S. forces from Asia, especially South Korea and Japan. Alongside Trump’s “fire-and-fury” rhetoric toward North Korea, Tokyo was faced with two alliance dilemmas – fear of entrapment and fear of abandonment – during the Trump administration. The shared alarm caused by Trump’s policies incentivized closer cooperation between Japan and Australia. While reinvigorating the Japan-U.S. military alliance, Abe managed to develop and maintain a “special strategic partnership” with Australia.
The Japanese and Australian governments have continued to strengthen their special strategic partnership during the administration of President Joe Biden. Biden’s diplomatic style has been more comfortable both for Tokyo and Canberra compared to his predecessor’s. The Biden administration has taken a hardline stance on Beijing in terms of human rights issues, and both Tokyo and Canberra have supported the stance of the U.S. government. As key U.S. allies, both Japan and Australia have been supportive of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework suggested by Biden.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February turned out to be another opportunity to strengthen the Australia-Japan strategic partnership and the quadrilateral defense ties between Japan, Australia, India, and the United States. During an international energy meeting held in Sydney in July, both Australia and the United States agreed on increasing the supply of liquefied natural gas to Japan in the face of energy shortages due to the influence of the war.
Strategically, Abe contributed to the formation of a security network based on the Japan-U.S. alliance in the Asia-Pacific region. Abe was the initiator of the “quadrilateral security dialogue” (Quad) comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. The Quad was originally proposed and initiated by Abe in 2007 during his first term as prime minister, and it was revived and formulated during his second term. Both Tokyo and Canberra have strengthened security ties through the Quad framework over the years. Prior to the funeral, Albanese told Kishida that “he [Abe] was very well respected. And as an international statesperson, it is clear that the Quad Leaders’ dialogue would not have occurred without his leadership.”
Similarly, Abe was an initiator and proponent of Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) vision, which originally stems from his speech at the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development held in Kenya in August 2016. Understandably, the Quad counterparts have supported Abe’s FOIP vision, and the U.S. government adopted the Indo-Pacific Strategy during the Trump administration. Australia has likewise regarded the Indo-Pacific region as a strategically important sphere. Both Japan and Australia are responsible for the peace and security of the Indo-Pacific region – not only as quasi-allies or mutual U.S. allies but also as democratic leaders and middle powers in the region.
The Australia-Japan economic and trade partnership has always been a key factor for the bilateral friendship. Without doubt, the economic partnership has been a cornerstone for the bilateral relationship since the conclusion of the 1957 Japan-Australia Commerce Agreement during the administration of Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke and Prime Minister Robert Menzies. Abe and Abbott signed an Economic Partnership Agreement in July 2014 which came into force in January 2015.
Shortly thereafter, both countries pursued the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership even after the Trump administration left the deal. As regional economic middle powers, both Abe and Turnbull took leadership to ensure the signing of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership in January 2018, which entered into force in December of that year.
Also, both governments signed off the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in November 2020, which came into force in January of this year. Based on the solid economic partnership, both governments have agreed on further cooperation in the field of carbon neutral and renewable energy. Notably, Albanese, who pledged to make Australia a “renewable superpower,” plans to reinforce carbon neutral collaboration with Japan, including the emerging Australia-Japan hydrogen supply chain.
Both Tokyo and Canberra took a bilateral initiative for the International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, which evolved into the Non-Proliferation Disarmament Initiative, a multilateral framework for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Both Kishida and Albanese are motivated to make diplomatic contributions to facilitating the move toward a world without nuclear weapons. Nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation is expected to play a key role at the G-7 Hiroshima Summit to be held in May 2023.
In sum, the Japan-Australia special strategic partnership was established during the Abe period, and it will remain significant, as demonstrated by the Australia’s incumbent and former prime ministers’ “condolence diplomacy.”
The bilateral quasi-alliance was upgraded by the JDSC, Japan’s Peace and Security Legislation, the revised Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement, and the Reciprocal Access Agreement. Australia’s next-generation submarine deal (for which Japan unsuccessfully bid) and the whaling issue were thorny problems, but they have not necessarily affected the special strategic partnership over the long term.