Abe's push for a bloc to 'contain' China

PRIME Minister Shinzo Abe's rush to expand security ties with Australia belies his real motive - to enlist yet another nation in his bid to create a bloc of friendly countries to "contain" an increasingly belligerent China.

In a speech to the Australian Parliament, Mr Abe chastised China - without naming names - as a nation bent on using force to achieve its aim of dominating the region.

The latter is a reference to Beijing's increasing naval activities in the South China Sea, where it is embroiled with several South- east Asian nations in territorial disputes, and in the East China Sea, where Beijing is locked with Japan over the ownership of the Senkaku islands, called Diaoyu by the Chinese.

In the past several months, in meetings with leaders from Asean to Europe, Mr Abe has repeatedly irked China by making the point that the status quo in the region should not be changed by the use of force.

His message has drawn varying degrees of support. In his Australian counterpart, Mr Tony Abbott, Mr Abe found a willing partner.

Japanese officials were quoted as saying that as far as their views on the regional situation are concerned, the two leaders are "on the same wavelength".

Mr Abe proclaimed his visit to Canberra as "breathing life" into a new and special relationship between the two countries.

Significantly, Mr Abe's tour, which includes stops in New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, is the first overseas trip after he engineered a Cabinet decision last month that reversed a longstanding constitutional interpretation, giving Japan the right to collective self-defence.

In other words, its armed forces will be free to go to the aid of friendly countries under certain circumstances instead of being confined to the defence of Japan alone.

The policy shift was directly aimed at allowing the militaries of Japan and the United States, Tokyo's sole security ally, to operate together with less hassle. Mr Abe wanted Australia to know it is the first beneficiary of that new policy, which Mr Abe has ensured can be applied to any country that has "close ties" to Japan.

During his first term as prime minister from 2006-2007, Mr Abe had tried to create an alliance of democracies comprising the United States, Australia and India to act as a counterweight to a rising China.

But it never took off. Pragmatic India declined to be drawn into the alliance. Australia, then under a Labor government led by the Chinese-speaking Mr Kevin Rudd, was not enthusiastic about having to choose between Japan and China, which is Australia's top trading partner.

But things have changed with Mr Abbott now in charge. He has been extraordinarily friendly towards Japan, praising it as a "first-class international citizen". He has decided it worthwhile to boost security ties with Japan, even at the risk of upsetting China.

Mr Abe's ultimate objective is not just to strengthen ties with Australia, but to also boost the trilateral Japan-US-Australia scrum as a check against China.

With this objective in mind, Japan has agreed to begin talks with Australia on facilitating training between their two militaries that will eventually lead to training exercises that include the US as well.

Despite the enthusiastic welcome given to Mr Abe, it is still early days yet to judge the success of his latest mission. Mr Abbott, who has taken pains to declare that his country's new relationship with Japan is not aimed at a third country, cannot easily ignore the economic clout of China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, at a meeting with visiting former Australian prime minister John Howard in Beijing on Wednesday, made it a point to remind Australia that its economic future was inextricably linked to China's.

The newly minted Australian-Japan "special relationship" is likely headed for its first test later this year with Mr Xi set to visit Australia, which is hosting the G-20 meeting in November.

In terms of VIP treatment, Mr Xi will expect no less from Mr Abbott than that he had accorded Mr Abe, and probably much more.