Among the five bilateral relationships successive Australian Governments have agreed upon as being the most important (US, China, Japan, Indonesia and India), the sudden, though not unexpected, change in Liberal Party leadership will cause the most angst in Japan.

When Kevin Rudd replaced John Howard in 2007, many in Japan were concerned. This anxiety was further inflamed with Rudd's first maladroit steps in regional diplomacy. Luckily, while more slowly and awkwardly, the bilateral relationship and security partnership continued to strengthen as shown by the signing of the Cross-Servicing Agreement in 2013.

Common security interests, more adroit diplomacy on the Australian side and a strong and expanding network of operational cooperation quickly assuaged Japanese angst. Test passed. 

The change of leadership from Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull will pose another test of the degree to which common strategic interests and ongoing intergovernmental cooperation shape policy, versus local domestic interests and individual leaders. As with Rudd, there are concerns (again flowing from the domestic debate in Australia) that Turnbull is 'pro-China' and hence not a 'friend' of Japan. 

In two ways though, this second test will be harder:

  1. The Abbott-Abe relationship is very strong and developed from the beginning of Abbott's term and Abe's second. Howard's close personal ties with Koizumi and Abe came in the second half of Howard's long prime ministerial stay.
  2. This close personal relationship was seen to be the key to delivering the Japan-Australia trade deal. The security relationship moved from a walk to a sprint with prime ministerial support for Australia's consideration in buying Japanese submarines or submarine technology. On each side, the potential submarine deal is a huge, ground-breaking initiative and, unfortunately, has become a media touchstone in both countries for the direction of the relationship as a whole.

It is unlikely that Turnbull will be able to develop such a close and in some ways defining relationship with Abe before the next Australian election. Likewise, it's unlikely that Turnbull will retain Kevin Andrews as Defence Minister, so the delayed 2015 Defence White Paper will probably be delayed again, as will any decision on submarines.

It's doubtful that Turnbull will choose to pay as high a price for being seen to support buying submarines off the shelf (the cheapest and easiest option, but one that limits the number of jobs and ribbon cuts in the Australian defence industry and the option seen most favourable to the Japanese) as Abbott was.

After the first failed attempt to unseat Abbott in February, the process for choosing submarines was hurriedly revised at a rushed news conference in Adelaide where the Defence Minister was surrounded by the Liberal members of parliament from South Australia, the self-named 'Defence State.' The new 'competitive bidding process' was widely seen as less favourable to the Japanese. In a rare show of bi-partisanship, the Labor and Liberal Party leaders of South Australia have already publicly noted they have contacted Turnbull and pushed for a submarine choice that maximises the amount of work done in South Australia. With senior Japanese defence figures questioning Adelaide's ability to build Soryu submarines, any commitment by the Turnbull Government to a 'build in Australia (Adelaide)' approach to submarines will cast further doubt on the Japanese option.

To pass this second tougher test and assuage Japanese angst, Turnbull would be well-served to stay firm on the proper policy that Australia will choose the option that provides the best submarine at the best price to Australia, especially given the huge expenditure of taxpayers' money the project will entail. It would also be a good idea to find ways of promoting other less complex and sensitive aspects of the bilateral security partnership and relationship as a whole, such as Japanese training exercises in Australia.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user G20 Australia 2014.