CANBERRA/TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Australia's parliament on Tuesday that the two nations were launching a "special relationship" of cooperation on areas such as defence after putting aside any lingering enmity from World War Two.
Abe, warily eying China's rapid military buildup and more assertive claims to islands held by Japan in the East China Sea, has been courting governments from Canberra to Southeast Asia in recent months. China is Australia's largest trading partner.
"Today I stand in front of you, who represent the people of Australia, and state solemnly that now Japan and Australia will finally use our relationship of trust," Abe told a joint session, the first such speech by a Japanese leader.
He and Australian counterpart Tony Abbott were to sign an agreement on military equipment and technology transfers, a week after Abe loosened curbs on Japan's military, as well as an economic partnership pact.
The military deal "will make the first cut engraving the special relationship in our future", Abe said.
Mirroring a partnership concluded with Britain a year ago, it will establish a framework for industrial cooperation that could pave the way for a deal on building a fleet of stealth submarines for Australia.
Abe has been forging a more assertive defence and security posture in his year-and-a-half in office.
In April, he eased a four-decade ban on military exports, which could allow Japan to ship submarine components or even completed vessels to Australia.
A week ago, Abe's Cabinet reinterpreted the pacifist constitution to allow Japan's military to defend friendly nations under attack.. "As a nation that longs for permanent peace in the world, and as a country whose economy is among the biggest, Japan is now determined to do more to enhance peace in the region and peace in the world," said Abe.
Abbott hailed the Japanese leader's pledge to build a more robust military. "For decades now Japan has been an exemplary international citizen, so Australia welcomes Japan's recent decision to be a more capable strategic partner in our region,"he told parliament before Abe spoke.
Australia is looking for partners to build a fleet of 4,000 ton-class quiet-running diesel-electric subs to help extend its maritime surveillance deep into the Indian Ocean. Their presence could also help Japan keep better tabs on Chinese activity.
The United States, which is also closely allied with Australia, has also welcomed Abe's shift, saying it would make the U.S.-Japan alliance more effective.
Abe has sent his defence minister, Itsunori Onodera, to Washington to discuss the changes.
China, which says Japan has failed to atone for its wartime aggression and is seeking to whitewash history, has been sharply critical of Abe's moves.
Speaking at an event on Monday to commemorate the 77th anniversary of a skirmish that sparked war with Japan, Chinese President Xi Jinping condemned Japan's wartime atrocities and criticised those who "ignore ... history.
Abe went to New Zealand on Monday before his visit to Australia and will travel to Papua New Guinea on Thursday.