OPINION: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s call this week for a deeper, closer strategic and defence partnership with Japan is a watershed moment in the bilateral relationship that promises to deliver significant benefits for both countries — although it won’t be risk-free.

Bishop’s initiative was well timed and is the culmination of 26 years of patient Australian diplomacy, dating back to former chief of the defence force Peter Gration’s groundbreaking first defence visit to Japan in 1989.

It dovetails neatly with the Abe government’s more outward-looking security stance, a response to the burgeoning foreign policy and strategic challenges Japan confronts.

The recrudescence of historical animosities and rivalry with China clearly is driving Japan’s search for security beyond its established, and still vital, defence ties with the US. But the added stress of dealing with the quixotic, alpha male leaders of neighbouring Russia and North Korea, both nuclear-armed states, has contributed to Shinzo Abe’s anxieties.

Japan’s Prime Minister has opted for a classical hedging response, spreading Japan’s strategic risk by adopting a proactive regional security policy and strengthening defence and security co-operation with countries such as Australia.

The shift in Japan’s position from a largely passive security taker to a more active and constructive provider of security goods for the region began in the early 1990s but has accelerated dramatically under Abe.

In a little-noted speech at the time, in 2012 Abe set out his vision for a “democratic security diamond” in which he envisaged Japan linking with Australia, India and the US to safeguard the Indo-Pacific maritime commons, human rights and the rule of law.

In office he has pursued this strategy with vigour, giving particular priority to Australia, which he sees as a natural strategic partner with shared values and, increasingly, shared interests — a view reciprocated by the Coalition government under Tony Abbott and now Malcolm Turnbull.

China has only itself to blame for the unfolding crisis in the South China Sea. This is a direct result of its provocative land reclamation activities and evident determination to build up its military capabilities on occupied islands.

Abe first had to ease some of the more perverse administrative strictures on Japan’s Self Defence Force and reform the country’s outdated pacifist constitution, which severely limited the scope for security co-operation with other countries, preventing the JSDF from operating like a normal defence force.

Before Abe’s reforms last year, the JSDF could not participate in combat operations outside Japan or go to the assistance of friends or allies if they were attacked. Some of the constraints bordered on the ludicrous. JSDF troops deployed to Iraq in 2004 were not permitted to defend themselves and had to be protected by British and Dutch forces. Japanese officials used to lament, only half in jest, that JSDF tanks en route to counter an invasion would never get to the fight in time because they had to observer the speed limit and stop at red traffic lights.

A further impediment was Japan’s 50-year prohibition on the export of defence technologies, which Abe lifted in 2014. Although a relative novice in the business of defence — less than 1 per cent of Japan’s industrial output is military related — the country’s sophisticated manufacturing base and reputation for excellence in design suggest it won’t be long before Japan becomes competitive in many areas where it lacks expertise.

Fortunately, the building of world-class submarines is not one of them. Australia has lucked out in attracting a serious bid by Japan for our next-generation submarine to replace the ageing Collins-class boats. All the more so because it is being driven by Abe, who understands that a successful bid will not only open the door to greater defence co-operation but also have a cascading effect regionally, with other countries expressing interest in buying defence equipment from Japan.

The high priority the Japanese government is giving to winning the bid was apparent during Bishop’s visit to Tokyo, with Abe and his senior ministers in full sell mode, pitching the technical excellence, affordability and strategic virtues of their bid. Bishop rightly adhered to the line that our future submarine will be selected through a rigorous and objective evaluation process. But if Japan wins the tender, as many think likely, it will turbocharge not just defence co-operation but the whole bilateral relationship.

China may not be so happy, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi made clear in his undiplomatic warning that Australia should not forget Japan’s militaristic past. His testy comments underscore the real risk that relations with China may fray if defence co-operation with Japan deepens and broadens.

China does not want to see closer ties between Australia and its chief Asian rival for influence when relations with Japan have been soured by several serious political and territorial disagreements. Beijing also fears that Australia is being recruited by Japan and the US into an emerging anti-China coalition that could seriously threaten its maritime interests.

These fears will have been heightened by the warm reception Bishop’s initiative has received in Japan while her Chinese counterpart was on the receiving end of polite but pointed questions from the Foreign Minister about the purpose of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea and how China intends to use the facilities it has built. Having to respond, with little warning, to breaking news that China has deployed two surface-to-air missile batteries to Woody Island, in the South China Sea, did little to improve Wang’s darkening mood at the end of his joint press conference with Bishop.

But China has only itself to blame for the unfolding crisis in the South China Sea. This is a direct result of its provocative land reclamation activities and evident determination to build up its military capabilities on occupied islands despite President Xi Jinping’s solemn promise not to do so last year.

The deployment of advanced missiles to Woody Island is a strong indication that China intends to extend its missile umbrella farther south to recently constructed artificial islands in the more strategically significant Spratlys. It’s hardly surprising that other countries are beginning to push back.

No doubt there will be further rumblings of discontent in Beijing if Australia buys a Japanese submarine. The Chinese know a partnership between Australia and Japan, leveraging off US technology and naval know-how, significantly will improve the capability of the Japanese submarine fleet since Australia would bring its own mix of technology and operational experience to the table.

China also will have to factor into its calculations the presence of extremely quiet, state-of-the-art Australian submarines in the sea China wants to make its own.

While we should be cognisant of China’s sensitivities, it would be an indefensible dereliction of duty and sovereign responsibility to allow another country an effective veto over Australian national security and foreign policy decisions. So if Japan wins the submarine bid, China is going to have to live with it.

Character assassination of Japan and Abe also doesn’t help. It’s poor politics and no basis for policy. Nor is the tendentious argument that Australia risks being tarnished by the excesses of Japan’s imperial past and embroiled in any future conflict with China should it partner with Japan strategically.

The characterisation of Abe as a dangerous right-wing nationalist is as contrived as it is misleading. In pacifist Japan, Abe is undoubtedly a hawk. But he is no more of a hawk than China’s Xi. In an Australian context Abe would fit comfortably within Labor’s centre-right faction or the Coalition mainstream.

More to the point, he leads a country that has exemplary credentials as a vibrant democracy, good international citizen and generous aid giver.

For 70 years, Japanese governments consistently have preferred diplomacy to force, persuasion to coercion and multilateralism over unilateralism. There is little likelihood of Japan reverting to old-style militarism. Democracy and the rule of law are firmly entrenched and some constitutional restrictions on the use of force will remain, despite Abe’s reforms.

The US alliance ensures Japan has no need for the nuclear weapons or force projection capabilities that would raise alarm bells in the region.

As former adversaries with dissimilar cultures and histories, Australia and Japan may once have seemed unlikely strategic bedfellows. But this is clearly no longer the case and has not been so for several decades. We already have two productive defence and security agreements with Japan and an extensive track record of collaboration on intelligence, peacekeeping, humanitarian operations, law enforcement, maritime security, cyber threats, nuclear proliferation and countering terrorism.

Taking the strategic relationship to a higher level would facilitate regional responses to emerging threats, position both countries to play a more influential role in regional affairs, and create new opportunities for shaping US policy in Asia and the Pacific.

Abe’s courtship suggests that Australia is widely viewed as a significant player in the geopolitics of East Asia. We should take advantage of our new leverage to think about what kind of neighbourhood we want to live in — because if we don’t, others will decide for us.

Alan Dupont is Professor of International Security at the UNSW and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian.

Alan Dupont