The reason Shinzo Abe talked so much about peace, freedom of navigation and the rule of law in the Australian Parliament is because he believes they are under threat.
The Japanese prime minister did not name that threat and nor did his host and friend, Prime Minister Tony Abbott. But the core of Abe’s message, and the fact that he will travel twice to Australia in the space of four months, makes no sense unless framed by shared anxieties about China. China features in Abe's speech like the dark master in a Harry Potter novel: The Nation That Must Not Be Named.
“We want to make Japan a country that will work to build an international order that upholds the rule of law,” said Abe, implicitly drawing a contrast with the Chinese Communist Party’s aversion to being bound by any outside power.
“Japan is now working to change its legal basis for security . . . so we can act jointly with other countries in as many ways as possible,” said Abe, referring to his program to pull Japan away from its postwar pacifist constraints and tighten military links with Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, India and other regional nations.
“Let us join together all the more in order to make vast seas from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian, and those skies, open and free,” said Abe, raising concerns about freedom of navigation and oversight that were precipitated by China’s unilateral declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone over the East China Sea.
“In everything we say and do we must follow the law and never fall back into force and coercion,” said Abe, without naming China's myriad territorial challenges to its neighbours, most notably Japan.
Japan, Australia and the United States were substantially tightening their defence cooperation in response to China’s growing power even before China escalated a series of territorial challenges in the past two years.
These tectonic movements became clear the last time a world leader addressed the Australian Parliament, in November 2011.
“We stand for an international order in which the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld; where international law and norms are enforced; where commerce and freedom of navigation are not impeded; where emerging powers contribute to regional security and where disagreements are resolved peacefully,” said US President Barack Obama, announcing his “pivot” to Asia.
Abe’s address to parliament is also a strategic landmark which illuminates how Japan and Australia are leading the creation of a regional coalition to hedge against China, with - but also without - the United States.