Japan is watching anxiously after Australian leader Tony Abbott, one of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s closest allies in the Asia-Pacific region, was ousted in a party leadership vote this week.
At stake is not only a multibillion-dollar deal to build submarines, but also U.S. and Japanese plans to work more closely with Australia in providing a bulwark against an increasingly belligerent China.
Abbott, who was defeated in the vote late Monday by rival Malcolm Turnbull, was a close confidant of Abe and shared a similar vision of creating a new kind of security triangle with Washington.
The sudden replacement “took us by surprise,” a Japanese Foreign Ministry official was quoted saying.
The nation must now start from scratch with a new leader less focused on personal ties, even if they share a general outlook, some analysts said.
“Turnbull and Abbott see the world in largely similar views,” said Andrew Carr, a research fellow with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University. However, he said Turnbull may bring a new view to foreign relations.
“He might be more optimistic that economic interdependence, communication and global structures can prevent conflict,” Carr said. “Abbott tended to be more pessimistic and wanted to focus on closer personal ties and ‘friendships’ between countries to preserve the same order.”
Some experts say the change of leader is unlikely to have a serious impact on ties, which have been growing.
“Japan’s importance to Australia is well understood by all our senior politicians and we can expect continuity in the Australia-Japan relationship under Malcolm Turnbull,” said Shiro Armstrong, co-director of the Australia-Japan Research Centre at Australian National University.
Hungry for its regional allies to take on more security responsibilities, Washington has helped to nurture closer ties between Australia and Japan — and will likely continue to do so.
“The strengthening relationship between Japan and Australia exists at the bureaucratic level, and the countries are strategically tied by their crucial alliances with the United States,” said James Simpson, a Tokyo-based defense analyst and contributor to Jane’s Defence Weekly. “Even if Turnbull was interested in courting China, the reality of Australia’s strategic ties place Tokyo and Canberra on the same team.”
Corey Wallace, a security policy analyst at the Graduate School of East Asian Studies at Freie Universitat, Berlin, however, believes Turnbull’s views on China could also impact Japan-Australia ties.
Wallace said Abe and Abbott accelerated what was already a tendency to cooperate on strategic and military matters, but that the new leader may have a different nuance on China.
“Turnbull has a slightly different view of Australia’s strategic role in East Asia and it is unlikely that he will emphasize the ‘special relationship’ mantra that Abbott did. In fact, he is likely to be more sensitive to China in terms of strategic symbolism,” Wallace said.
“Turnbull sees China and its government’s regional objectives in rather benign terms, emphasizes the cultural links between contemporary Australia and China … and he has also on a number of occasions noted that China played a very important role in Australia’s defense during World War II by blocking an even swifter Japanese advance southwards.”
As for the submarine deal, Japanese officials remain cautiously optimistic despite a series of recent setbacks. Tokyo had been the front-runner for the bid with its Soryu-class submarines.
But a Japanese consortium visiting the country last month irked local suppliers with its apparent unwillingness to commit to building the 12 submarines in Australia, Reuters reported.
Australian media have reported that Abbott and Abe privately agreed last year that Japan would get the contract. Both sides have denied the existence of such a secret deal.
“The submarine deal is far from certain, but I don’t think Turnbull’s leadership will impact this any more than Japan’s apparent reluctance to allow Australia to build the Soryu submarines domestically,” Simpson said. “That is the core issue to Australian voters.
“If the report of the secret agreement is accurate, Turnbull will face U.S. pressure to abide by his predecessor’s decision,” Simpson added.
Experts also say Turnbull is unlikely to risk his popularity early on in his premiership by allowing Japan to assemble the subs elsewhere.
“For the Japanese bid to win, it will have to pull out all stops in trying to convince the new Cabinet that building Japanese submarines in Australia will bring significant domestic benefits. There will unlikely be any favors afforded that could tip the calculus toward Japan in a tight race,” Wallace said.