The sixth '2+2' consultation between Australia and Japan's foreign and defence ministers took place in Sydney yesterday. For Japan, the timing was fortuitous, coming a little over two months after Malcolm Turnbull wrestled the prime-ministerial helm from Tony Abbott, whose personal commitment and investment of political capital into beefing up the bilateral security partnership is well known.
Speculation that Turnbull would visit Tokyo as his first Asian destination has proved wide of the mark. But he has already brushed past Shinzo Abe twice on the multilateral summitry circuit, as Defence Minister Marise Payne has met her counterpart, Gen Nakatani. Yet the suspicion has lingered that under new management, with a fresh national security line-up (Julie Bishop excepted), Canberra might aim to navigate a more neutral path in its key Northeast Asian relationships. So, yesterday's 2+2 provided Japan with an early opportunity to re-embed the 'special strategic partnership', and to probe any changes of tone, or heart, Down Under.
Anyone looking to argue that the Turnbull Administration intends to peg back the relationship with Tokyo is unlikely to find much evidence to support that thesis from the public dynamics around the 2+2 meeting or the accompanying Joint Communiqué.
None of the four principals described each other's country as an 'ally', as Abbott famously said of Japan. But there were plenty of mutually reinforcing codewords on display in yesterday's interactions, from Marise Payne's description of Japan as 'our key partner' in the region and one of Australia's highest priorities for defence engagement, to Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida's depiction of the bilateral bond as a linchpin of security in the Asia-Pacific.
The military symbolism behind the ministers touring the amphibious assault ship (cum HADR response vessel) HMAS Canberra at its Sydney base was also clear. It was enough to signal, from both parties, that this remains a security and defence partnership ranked highly after their military alliance with the US; one with strategic overtones.
The language of the joint communiqué itself is somewhat restrained, but no fewer than seven repetitions of the word 'strong' seem designed to convey the image of a Canberra-Tokyo ministerial quartet singing volubly in unison from the same strategic hymn sheet.
So who is the target audience, apart from the Japanese and Australian publics? The simple answer to that, of course, is China, despite the two governments' efforts to cast the 2+2 cooperative agenda widely, in terms of global terrorism, North Korea, peacekeeping and peace-building.
One of only two direct references to China in the Joint Communiqué highlights the importance of building 'a constructive and mutually beneficial relationship… through dialogue, cooperation and engagement.' But strategic concern about China is the unmistakable refrain that runs through the Joint Communiqué's opposition to 'coercive or unilateral actions' in the East and South China Seas, and its expressions of mutual support for the rule of law at sea, freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight.
In yesterday's opening exchanges, Nakatani boldly underlined Japan's opposition to 'self-righteous assertions which are incompatible with international law and order' and could drastically change the region's strategic environment. He asked for Australia's support to 'send a clear message' that such attempts will not be condoned.
Lengthy interrogation at the press conference about the prospects and modalities for Japanese and Australian security and defence cooperation in the South China Sea, and on the submarine acquisition essentially boils down to same thing: what are Japan and Australia prepared to do in the face of China's seemingly relentless strategic push? On freedom of navigation, bar strong support reiterated at the 2+2 for the US decision to undertake operational assertions, it appears that neither ally has yet committed to undertaking their own naval or air activities in support.
On submarines, my takeaway from yesterday's press conference was that the post-Abbott penny has well and truly dropped in Japan; they know now they are in a commercial dogfight with the more export-savvy German and French bidders. Hence Nakatani's visit to Sydney was preceded by a trip to Adelaide (and that of a Japanese industry delegation several weeks ago). In the press conference he played the two trump cards in Japan's hand: unrivalled experience in the design and construction of long-range conventionally powered submarines and a strategic relationship that is not only bilateral, but trilateral, when the US-made combat system for the Collins' replacement is taken into account.
Minister Payne had the presence of mind to welcome the submission of this torpedo-like pitch without appearing to endorse the Japanese bid. That, it seems, is another defence decision the Government is content to put off to a more convenient date. With $50 billion at stake, it's worth the wait.
Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.