The ALP is holding its National Conference in Melbourne next week, and in May it released a draft National Platform, which will be debated at the Conference. Media coverage thus far has hinted at the topics most likely to cause friction among party factions and with the Government: emissions trading, asylum seekersmarriage equality and perhaps energy policy.

The foreign policy section of the draft probably won't get much attention, but it is worth highlighting one change to the document compared to Labor's existing National Platform, which was agreed at Labor's last national conference in 2011.

That document refers to Japan as 'Australia’s closest partner in Asia'. But the new draft omits this statement or any similar sentiment. Instead, the new draft groups Japan alongside India, Indonesia and Korea as countries with which a Labor government would seek to build stronger ties. There is one other substantive reference to Japan in the 2015 draft, and it is more pejorative, saying that 'Labor is committed to ensuring that the landmark ruling in the International Court of Justice against Japan’s Antarctic "scientific" whaling program is adhered to by Japan.' While the existing platform also states Labor's opposition to whaling, it does not mention Japan in that context.

Does this signal a change in Labor sentiment on the Japan relationship?

We shouldn't overstate the significance of such changes. A future Labor government is not tied closely to this platform. The document is intended as 'a clear statement of Labor’s beliefs, values and program for government', but it is not specific enough to guide day-to-day foreign policy. Moreover, Labor governments have in the past managed the Japan relationship reasonably effectively and in fact they deepened it in the Rudd-Gillard years, despite tensions over whaling.

Then again, keep in mind that, back in May, Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek gave an interview in which she criticised the Abbott Government for favouring Japan over China:

“The real issue is a prioritising of the relationship with Japan and the US over the relationship with China,” Ms Plibersek said. “They have seemed to make a choice in favour of Japan over China. And I think our interests are best served by having good and strong relationships with both countries.”

And earlier in the year, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten spoke to workers at submarine builder ASC in Adelaide about the possibility that the next generation of Australian subs might be built in Japan. He used rhetoric on that occasion which raised memories of World War II, a tactic that could not have endeared him to the Japanese.

These are straws in the wind, but we can't rule out the possibility that we are seeing a clear difference emerging in the foreign policy priorities of the two major parties. The Abbott Government, after all, has been very pro-Japan. The Prime Minister's rhetoric towards Japan has been warm from the beginning, and he is thought to enjoy a close relationship with Prime Minister Abe. Australia and Japan have inked a free-trade deal, deepened defence ties (Japanese forces are taking part in Exercise Talisman Sabre as we speak), and there's an excellent chance Australia's next generation of submarines will be Japanese-built or at the very least have a lot of Japanese input.

If there is an emerging difference in the approach of the two big parties to the Japan relationship, Plibersek's statement reveals the reason: it's about China, not Japan. A split on Japan policy would reveal that the two parties have arrived at different conclusions about the best way to manage the rise of China, with one side arguing that the best response is to double down on our traditional alliances, while the other hedges with a more pro-China line.

Photo by Flickr user James Cridland.