I am happy to fess up for making quite a lot of noise about Tony Abbott's depiction of Japan as Australia's 'best friend' in Asia. And I have to admit that there are comments from leading figures in previous governments which are not a million miles far from that lofty mark. For example, during his time as Labor’s foreign minister, Stephen Smith gave a 2010 speech in which he referred to Japan as ‘our closest and most consistent partner in East Asia for many years.’ A less Olympian line perhaps, but not a completely inconsistent tone. 

But the new prime minister has undoubtedly taken things to a new level by saying late last week that Australia is a 'strong ally' of Japan. The context for this comment adds to its significance. It was uttered as Mr Abbott was defending Australia's criticism of China's new Air Defence Identification Zone, criticisms which ruffled feathers in Beijing. In the same comments, Mr Abbott also used the same 'strong ally' formulation in reference to the US.

Canberra and Washington have been formal allies since the signing of the 1951 ANZUS Treaty (and of course they worked closely together in the Second World War). By contrast, Australia and Japan are not formal allies. When Abbott’s mentor John Howard traveled to Tokyo to sign the Security Declaration with Japan in 2007, he left open the possibility of a more binding connection. But for the time, he said, 'It's not in the category of ANZUS. It's a declaration about security.'

The following year the two countries signed a Defence Memorandum of Understanding. But this did not take them to alliance standing either. The Rudd Government’s 2009 Defence White Paper, much better known for its treatment of China, called Japan ‘a critical strategic partner in the region and more broadly’.

Again, no alliance, but clearly the language is getting warmer.

Earlier this year, when the Gillard Government’s White Paper was published, we read that the ‘defence and strategic partnership between Australia and Japan has been strengthened in recent years.’ An almost instant relic, the Gillard era document also made an early reference to 'Japan, a US ally'. We will need to watch carefully to see whether Mr Abbott’s comments have changed the logarithm to 'Japan, a US and Australian ally.'

Certainly the new government’s approach to Japan has treated it as if it were at the very least an informal ally deserving Australia’s unstinting support. We can put this down partly to the 'Events, dear boy, events' explanation for foreign policy changes made famous by Harold Macmillan. But it is also about the preferences of the new team. As one important Australian said in last week’s forum with New Zealand political and business leaders in Sydney, Canberra has a close relationship with Japan in large degree because it is a country that is easy for Australia to deal with.

We might also presume that the elevation in Australia’s convergence with Japan is about the advice that the new government’s decision-makers are getting. An October article in The Australian drew attention to the role which could be expected from Andrew Shearer, a former Lowy Institute Director of Studies who is now a foreign policy adviser to Mr Abbott. That article quoted Nick Bisley, no stranger to these pages, who observed that Shearer is 'reasonably hawkish on China and a really strong supporter of (Shinzo) Abe', and suggested that 'Japan policy under the Abbott government is going to come largely from his desk.' During his time with the Lowy Institute, Shearer certainly did little to keep his enthusiasm for closer Australia-Japan relations hidden.

Of course it is not entirely impossible that the Prime Minister’s 'strong ally' comment was a heat-of-the-moment reflection. But somehow I doubt that.

Instead, I think there is a body of opinion within the new cabinet, a view championed by Mr Abbott and Ms Bishop, which sees Australia as far more than a leading security partner of Japan. Whether this sentiment is translated into a formal alliance agreement between the two countries (an unlikely prospect) is not the point. The main issue is whether Japan, the US, China, and the rest of the region believe Canberra is setting itself up for strategic obligations to Tokyo in the event of future crises. The Prime Minister’s approach to date suggests that he is unfazed if that impression is taken. 

Photo by Flickr user doraemon.