Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe deepens ties with Australia in historic visit to Darwin

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Australian counterpart, Mr Scott Morrison, announced a series of new agreements spanning defence, scientific research and investment. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY - Japan and Australia on Friday (Nov 16) agreed to deepen defence ties and jointly fund regional infrastructure projects, bringing the two nations closer together amid shared concerns about China's growing regional influence.

During a historic visit to the northern Australian city of Darwin, which Japan bombed during World War II, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Australian counterpart, Mr Scott Morrison, announced a series of new agreements spanning defence, scientific research and investment.

They agreed to combat maritime crime and announced a memorandum of understanding to promote investment that specifically aims to prevent nations in the region falling into excess debt - a goal seen as a response to Chinese loans which have left some countries such as Sri Lanka and Tonga with heavy debt burdens.

"The MOU will support sustainable regional infrastructure investment that is needs-based, transparent and avoids unsustainable debt burdens," Mr Morrison and Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement.

"Australia continues to welcome all investment into our region from all partner nations where it meets these criteria."

The statement added: "Our countries are great friends and these initiatives recognise our deep shared interests and values."

The Japanese and Australian leaders said they had discussed efforts to support regional stability and achieve "broader and deeper defence cooperation".

These discussions included plans for a pact - due to be completed by early 2019 - to facilitate joint military operations and exercises.

The two countries, which are close allies of the United States, praised the growing cooperation of these three nations with India - a four-way grouping that has gained momentum and has been seen as an attempt to balance China's growing power and influence in the region.

Mr Abe said at a joint press conference that he and Mr Morrison had committed to deeper ties to pursue "our common vision of a free and open Indo Pacific".

Japan and Australia were quick to normalise trade ties after World War II and have expanded defence ties in recent years. Their interests have increasingly come to overlap, particularly due to their concerns about China's rise as well as United States President Donald Trump's unpredictable approach to alliances.

Mr Morrison said that Australia and Japan were "working very closely together and identifying more and more ways to do that".

"We have a very similar outlook on how issues need to be managed in this part of the world," he told reporters.

"Japan has a very important strategic partnership with the United States, as do we. They also have a very significant trade relationship with China and a broader relationship, as do we."

Mr Abe and Mr Morrison visited a cenotaph in Darwin and paid tribute to the war dead.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison lay wreaths at the Cenotaph War Memorial in Darwin, Australia, on Nov 16, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

In February 1942, Japan launched the first attack by a foreign force on Australia's mainland, conducting two raids that killed at least 235 people.

An Australian war veteran, Mr Austin Asche, shook hands with Mr Abe, saying later that he hoped the visit would lead to closer relations between the two nations.

"Darwin is the gateway to Asia and one of our great friends are the Japanese," he told The Northern Territory News.

"You don't blame people for generations back, you meet them as they are these days."

Mr Morrison told Mr Abe: "The way you've done this today in the spirit of tremendous grace and humility is important. But more than that, you have done this as a great friend of Australia and we thank you for that."

Mr Abe also used the visit to mark the commencement of a A$54 billion-plus (S$53.92 billion) liquefied natural gas project, Japan's largest foreign investment.

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