SYDNEY - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will arrive in the small city of Darwin in northern Australia on Friday (Nov 16) for the first visit by a Japanese leader since Japan bombed the city in 1942.
Accompanied by his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison, Mr Abe is expected to pay respects to the Australian and Japanese war dead. Darwin was the site of the first attack by a foreign force against mainland Australia - two raids by about 200 Japanese bombers in February 1942 killed at least 235 people.
But this symbolic visit by Mr Abe will be primarily aimed at the future, as the two countries shore up their trade and military ties, including discussions on a landmark deal that would make it easier to hold regular and large-scale joint military exercises and operations.
Announcing the visit on Wednesday, Mr Morrison said the leaders would acknowledge the war and the subsequent reconciliation, saying the two countries now enjoyed "a strong and enduring friendship".
"It is one of immense progress and opportunity," he said.
"Prime Minister Abe's visit is deeply symbolic and significant and it will build on our two countries' strong and enduring friendship as well as our economic, security, community and historical ties."
Australia was quick to normalise trade ties with Japan after the war and went on to develop a close trading relationship. From the 1970s, Japan was Australia's closest trading partner until it was overtaken by China in 2007.
But the relationship has deepened in recent years, including growing defence and military ties.
The two nations, both close allies of the Unites States, have found their interests increasingly overlapping, particularly as China's rise has changed the power balance in the region and as United States President Donald Trump has raised questions about Washington's traditional approach to its alliances.
Mr Trump has worried Japan by targeting it with tariffs and suggesting that it should cover the entire cost of the American troop deployment there.
In Darwin, Mr Abe will visit a memorial built last year to commemorate the deaths of about 80 Japanese seamen killed in a submarine that planned to attack in 1942 before the February raids. He and Mr Morrison plan to lay wreaths at a ceremony at a cenotaph.
They will also attend an event to mark the commencement of a liquefied natural gas project costing more than A$54 billion (S$53.8 billion), Japan's largest foreign investment.
The gas is being extracted from the offshore Ichthys field off north-west Australia and processed at a new plant in Darwin. About 70 per cent is due to be exported to Japan. The project, operated by Japanese firm Inpex, could last 40 years.
But the talks between Mr Abe and Mr Morrison are expected to go beyond trade to include regional threats and the development of an agreement to facilitate larger and regular joint military exercises.
The Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) has been in negotiation since 2014 and is due to be completed either this year or next.
"We are at the final stage in discussions," an official from Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs told The Australian Financial Review. "If we finalise that we can do more joint exercises."
The deal would mark the first such military exercise and access arrangement for Japan outside its pact with the United States and would signal Tokyo's continued shift towards developing a more explicit and international role for its military.
Dr Lauren Richardson, an expert on North-east Asia from the Australian National University, said Japan has been seeking to "diversify its security policy" and wants to boost ties with a range of old and new partners in the region. She said the military deal with Australia could pave the way for further agreements with other countries.
"Ever wary of China's growing regional influence and assertiveness in the South China Sea, Abe is intent on cementing new security partnerships in the Indo-Pacific," she wrote on The Lowy Institute's Interpreter website.
"For Abe, the RAA with Australia will have the added benefit of signifying progress on the 'normalisation' of Japan's security policy, one of his mainstay political agenda items."
She added: "By acknowledging the history of military conflict between the two countries, Tokyo will provide a more solid footing for the burgeoning security partnership."