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Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (R) shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) before their meeting at the state guest house in Tokyo on December 18, 2015. (FRANCK ROBICHON/AFP/Getty Images)

Malcolm Turnbull's Day Well Spent with Trusted Partner

John Lee

When Australian leaders meet their counterparts from China, it is treated as historic, no matter how modest the agenda.

Contrast this with the lack of fanfare leading into yesterday’s summit between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Malcolm Turnbull in Tokyo even though it was the latter’s inaugural stand-alone bilateral summit in Asia.

Why the lack of hype and comparable interest? It is because Japan’s capacity to influence the strategic landscape in Asia and advance Turnbull’s signature innovation plan for the Australian economy is widely underappreciated. Now is as good a time as any to restore sight to what remains an Australian blind spot.

When Tony Abbott praised Japan as “Australia’s best friend in Asia” in October 2013, many in the risk-averse diplomatic community fretted. Seeking to elevate an existing strategic partnership with Tokyo, Abbott openly enthused about replacing the ageing fleet of Australia’s locally made Collins-class submarines with a Japanese-designed model based on the latter’s highly advanced Soryu-class vessels.

This was designed to kill two birds with one stone. For one, buying Japanese likely would offer Australia the best diesel-powered submarine for our conditions. It would allow the Royal Australian Navy to play a more muscular role in Southeast Asia in addition to remaining the local naval hegemon in the South Pacific.

Additionally, Washington indicated to Canberra that Japanese submarines could be fitted with US weapon systems with minimal obstacles. This meant selecting the Japanese option would bind the future of the multi-billion-dollar Australian submarine project, our biggest defence scheme, to the US alliance and a deepening strategic relationship with Japan: a doubling down on the US-centric network of alliances in Asia.

Apart from Chinese displeasure, almost all of East Asia has been cautiously supportive of the evolving Australia-Japan relationship. These countries are nervously watching to see whether the region’s US allies are willing and able to assume a greater share of the strategic and military burden as China rises.

Two of the region’s most capable naval powers after the US and China, Japan and Australia bear a special burden, something Tokyo is only just coming to terms with under Abe. If together Tokyo and Canberra cannot alter the balance of power in the region, extensive trilateral co-operation between the US-Japan-Australia severely complicates any Chinese plans for strategic and military dominance. This increases the prospect of Chinese restraint, and the possibility that Beijing will be persuaded or compelled to integrate peacefully into the existing security order and wield power in the broader interest.

That was then. Now is the Turnbull age. One change is Turnbull’s stronger commitment to an open and competitive tender process for the submarine contract, meaning Japan no longer has automatic favouritism over competing German and French syndicates. For this reason, Turnbull would not have given Abe any assur­ances on the submarine question and there is no evidence that yesterday’s meeting unduly disadvantaged the German and French syndicates.

Even so, strategic considerations remain an essential issue when it comes to making a final decision next year. On that basis, one can be sure Abe stated his country’s strategic case confidently. That joint military exer­cises were discussed while Turnbull reaffirmed the strategic value of Japan is a promising sign that Australia may yet choose what was Abbott’s preferred option, given Soryu-class vessels can more than match competitors in terms of capability and probably cost. If so, Australian and regional interest will have been well served by Friday’s meeting.

The visit was important for another reason. There is much angst about how Australia can avoid the so-called Dutch disease. Coming off a once-in-a-generation commodity boom, the easiest and fastest way for Australia to trade up and differently is to attract investment from world-leading firms or invite them to enter into joint-venture partnerships.

Despite uncertainty as to the success of Abe’s ambitious domestic reform agenda, Japan remains the most advanced economy in Asia. Its firms are superbly positioned to boost Turnbull’s innovation agenda given they are leading global innovators and exponents in many of the sectors that will determine the prosperity and competitiveness of advanced econ­omies in Asia: robotics, automation, 3-D printing, next-generation information technologies such as cloud applications, cyber, advanced materials, and bio and nanotechnology, to name several.

It is not without purpose that Turnbull spent some of his brief time visiting the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation and meeting Honda’s Asimo humanoid robot, the world’s most advanced.

Those treating Japan as an afterthought or as yesterday’s great power are wading in the shallow end of the pool. Japan’s political evolution and successful rise after World War II — and the benefits this has brought to its people and the region — offer a compelling reminder of why democracy, liberal institutions such as rule of law, and limitations on the role of government in the economy and society remain the only viable destination for great, settled and prosperous powers in Asia.

China may be the larger economy and generate more interest and hype. But, unlike postwar Japan, its behaviour can be predatory, its future precarious, and its political economy unstable.

It has been a hectic international schedule for Turnbull since September. But yesterday’s whirlwind Tokyo visit was a day well spent.

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