- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has touched down in Darwin, the Australian city repeatedly attacked by Japan during World War II.
- Abe’s visit, the first by a Japanese PM since the war, is part of an intense round of shuttle diplomacy across the Pacific this week.
- Abe has already met with US Vice President Mike Pence, before the two will join other pacific leaders for a summit in nearby Papua New Guinea.
Shinzo Abe became the first Japanese Prime Minister to visit Darwin, Australia since the city was bombed during World War II.
Abe’s visit is part of an intense round of shuttle diplomacy this week.
Abe’s visit to Darwin is bookended between the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Singapore and the weekend’s meeting of leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Papua New Guinea. Abe will also meet with US Vice President Mike Pence, who is also arriving in Australia.
Abe’s timing is not merely symbolic. His arrival coincides with the official opening of the $54 billion LNG project, operated by Japan’s Inpex, in Darwin.
The first shipment of gas from the Inpex LNG processing facility steamed out of Darwin for Japan last month.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who also has a very full diplomatic schedule this week, described Abe’s visit as “deeply symbolic and significant.”
“It will build on our two countries’ strong and enduring friendship as well as our economic, security, community and historical ties,” Morrison said.
Japan and Australia normalised those ties in 1957, with the signing of the “Agreement on Commerce,” just 12 years after the end of World War II.
The deal was controversial at the time as many Australians said Canberra had moved too quickly to sign a formal agreement with its regional adversary and the only nation to attempt to invade modern Australia.
Today, that agreement is widely seen as a critical turning point in Australia’s engagement with its own backyard and Asia as a whole.
Japan and Australia are on the cusp of a significant upgrade to their strategic partnership, which will usher in a new phase for the bilateral relationship more broadly, according to Lauren Richardson, Director of Studies and Lecturer at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy.
Writing for the Lowy Institute on Friday, Richardson said negotiations for the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), which will enhance Australian and Japanese military exchanges, have been underway for almost four years but progress there has, in all probability, been hampered by Tokyo’s failed bid to build a submarine fleet for Australia in 2016.
“The proposed RAA, once in effect, will facilitate bilateral movement of Japanese and Australian forces, and enable more frequent and larger scale joint-exercises.”
Abe’s priority on this visit will be to make headway on the protracted negotiations and to reach a deal, Richardson said.
The Japanese prime minister’s symbolism comes almost two years after Abe made a similar significant visit to pay his respects at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii in December 2016.
Both Morrison and Abe will join Vice President Pence, at this weekend’s APEC summit in Port Moresby, as they continue to shore up old alliances for the region’s new strategic setting.