SYDNEY – Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Thursday that closer ties with Tokyo would not hurt Australia’s relations with China, following a visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The two countries signed free trade and security deals during the two-day visit, and Abe became the first Japanese leader to address the Australian parliament.
China is Australia’s biggest trading partner and has been restrained in its reaction to the summit, although its state media hit out at Abbott’s “appalling” speech to parliament during Abe’s visit. In his address, the Australian leader honored the courage of Japanese submariners during World War II.
Abbott repeatedly referred to the “special” relationship between Canberra and Tokyo, but said there was still room for bilateral ties with China to blossom.
“The point I make is that when it comes to international friendships, it is not a zero sum game. It is possible to strengthen a range of friendships simultaneously,” Abbott said, when asked by reporters if ties with Beijing had been damaged.
“We want a better friendship with Japan, and I think pretty obviously we are getting that. But we also want a better friendship with China,” he said.
“We are working on a free trade deal with China. I am still reasonably optimistic we will succeed there. We want better friendships with everyone,” Abbott added.
However, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Australia was not afraid to stand up to Beijing to defend peace and the rule of law.
“China doesn’t respect weakness,” she said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday. “So, when something affects our national interest then we should make it very clear about where we stand.”
Last month, Canberra backed comments by the United States, which accused China of engaging in “destabilizing” actions in the South China Sea, where it is involved in territorial disputes.
Bishop earned the ire of Beijing last November when she called in the country’s ambassador, in response to a move by China to extend its air defense identification zone over the East China Sea.
In response, Beijing said Australia risked “jeopardizing bilateral mutual trust.”
On Thursday, Abbott defended Bishop’s latest comments.
“Sometimes countries disagree, but it is possible to have respectful disagreements that don’t in any way prejudice the friendship,” he said.
Abe and Abbott visited a major iron ore mine in the Pilbara region of Australia on Wednesday to showcase close bilateral ties, after traveling roughly five hours together aboard an Australian government aircraft from Canberra.
“Supplies of resources and energy from Australia are vital for our country’s economic growth,” Abe told mine workers in the West Angelas mine.
Australia is a major exporter of iron ore to Japan, which has invested heavily in the Australian resources industry since the 1950s to secure stable supplies and build its economy.
The West Angelas mine is operated by a joint venture of major mining company Rio Tinto Group and Japanese firms Mitsui & Co. and Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp.
A day after summit talks with Abe, Abbott said the world-class mine symbolized bilateral cooperation between the two countries.
Abe left Australia on Thursday for Papua New Guinea, a Pacific nation emerging as an energy source for Japan.