Tony Abbott hopes to secure a free trade deal with Australia’s second-largest trade partner but will also use his Tokyo visit to talk regional security.
Tony Abbott will become the first foreign leader to address Japan’s national security council, a symbolic gesture experts warn could anger Beijing ahead of the prime minister’s visit to China next week.
Mr Abbott on Monday is scheduled to attend a special meeting of the council in Tokyo, while final attempts are made to hammer out a free trade deal with Australia’s second-largest trading partner.
Mr Abbott is “very optimistic” of striking a broad trade deal with Japan, which the federal government hopes he could announce alongside his counterpart Shinzo Abe at a bilateral meeting on Monday afternoon.
But he admits the final stage of negotiations have been difficult, and he’s not certain of finalising the talks that have dragged on for seven years.
“There’s still a bit of work to be done,” Mr Abbott told a gathering of senior business leaders and Japanese officials at a function in Tokyo on Sunday.
“If you see (Trade Minister) Andrew Robb put his drink down and scurry out it’s because he needs to do some last-minute final negotiating.”
The deal is understood to be hinged on Japan agreeing to slash its high tariffs on beef, a concession it’s been unwilling to grant in past trade agreements.
Both Mr Abbott and Mr Robb have stressed they won’t sign the dotted line unless there’s real gains to be had for the Australian economy.
But where ground isn’t being made on trade, Mr Abbott has made history as the first leader invited to join Japan’s inner sanctum for security talks in Tokyo.
An official from Japan’s foreign ministry told AAP it was “very unusual” for Mr Abbott to receive the offer, but showed how close ties were between the nations.
The four-member council was formed in December last year in response to what Tokyo calls the “increasingly severe” security situation in North Asia.
Security experts say it’s no coincidence this council has appeared at a time when Japan’s relationship with China is at historic lows and Tokyo is exploring options to bolster its regional presence.
Professor Hugh White from the Australian National University said there was no doubt Mr Abbott’s decision to talk strategy with Japan would aggravate Beijing.
“Although Abbott says that his principal objective in North Asia is to talk trade, his host’s (Japan) principal interests are talking strategy,” he told AAP from Canberra.
“The more strategically orientated Abbott’s agenda in Tokyo is, the less comfortable his visit to Beijing is going to be.”
The Abbott government has fallen foul of China in the past, and Mr Abbott will need to tread carefully in his travels next week.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was publicly upbraided in December for criticising China’s declaration of an air-defence zone over remote island territory also claimed by Japan.
His public support of Prime Minister Abe’s controversial plans to develop Japan’s military – an act prohibited by its constitution – at a time of such tension in the region will also win few friends in Beijing.
But Mr Abbott stressed that all of Australia’s bilateral relationships were important, and he wanted to foster closer ties to Japan, China and South Korea on this trip.
“You don’t strengthen some friendships by weakening others,” he told reporters in Tokyo on Sunday.
“Australia is in the business of making friends.”
He will meet Prime Minister Abe for an informal dinner on Sunday evening, before Mr Abbott is officially welcomed at the State Guest House the following morning.