When Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visits Tokyo Friday, the top item on the agenda is expected to be reaching an agreement with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on closer defense cooperation, particularly more joint military exercises between the two nations.

But behind Turnbull's visit to Japan, the first since he replaced Tony Abbott, who was particularly close to Abe, in September, is the question of whether Japan will be chosen to develop Australia's next-generation submarines, and what impact that decision could have on overall bilateral relations.

Just over two years ago, Abbott made headlines when he declared that Japan was Australia's closest friend in Asia, delighting Tokyo but creating concerns in Beijing and among those in Australia seeking to balance the country's relationship with China and Japan.