Australia and Japan: Beginning of a modern partnership

Hon Richard Court AC DFAT HOM. Official Portrait.  Parliament House Canberra 30 November 2016. Image David Foote-AUSPIC/DPS    By Richard Court, Australia’s Ambassador to Japan

Among the many revealing results in the recent Lowy Institute Poll was that 86 per cent of Australians trust Japan ‘to act responsibly in the world’, equal to trust in Germany and second only to confidence in the UK (90 per cent).

It is a revealing result as we pause today to recognise 60 years since the signing of the historic Agreement on Commerce between Australia and Japan.

The Agreement was endorsed by Prime Minister Menzies just 12 years after the war. It was controversial for its time, but I think all the more remarkable as we look to the present confidence and vitality in our ties to Japan.

Indeed, it’s difficult to overstate the role this Agreement has played in fostering those high-levels of trust we enjoy today, and to the economic development of Australia and Japan.

The Agreement on Commerce paved the path for women and men of vision from both our countries to seek new opportunity in the post war era. The Agreement was followed by the removal of the iron ore export embargo, opening up the opportunity for Pilbara iron ore to supply the Japanese steel mills. Australia grew to become Japan’s leading, trusted, minerals and energy supplier.

For Australia, the Agreement was truly transformational: some of those reserves came back in the form of consumer goods – cars, and eventually electronic goods – priced within the reach of Australians for the very first time.

More than cheaper goods and new industry though, the Agreement was something of a turning point in Australian economic history. The Agreement was our first ever trade deal in Asia and breathed competition and energy into traditional export industries.

It also paved the way for a pioneering wave of Japanese investment in Australia. Japan is now Australia’s second largest investor (Foreign Direct Investment – stock), with the modern trade and investment relationship bolstered by the Japan Australia Economic Partnership Agreement (JAEPA).

The positive legacy of our trade and investment ties has flowed through to trust at the political, grassroots and at the strategic defence level.

Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, the Hon Steven Ciobo MP with staff from JTB, Japan’s largest travel agency, in Tokyo, 2017. Credit: DFAT

This year also marks 10 years since the signing of the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation and we hope to see the Royal Australian Air Force take to Japanese skies for a joint activity for the first time in 2018.

There is always a risk, however, that the consistent positive trajectory in the Australia-Japan relationship may lead to complacency in how we look at each other.  We cannot take it for granted.

Students from the earthquake and tsunami-affected town of Minami-Sanriku participating in surf-life saving activities on the Gold Coast during an Australia-Japan Foundation-supported homestay, 2012. Credit: Australia-Japan Foundation

As Prime Minister Menzies himself observed: “More good things in life are lost by indifference than ever were lost by active hostility.”

The onus is on all of us not just to adapt as circumstances change, but to actively seek out new opportunities, as our forebears did 60 years ago.

Richard Court is a former Western Australian politician who has held a number of senior positions and directorships in private and public companies, including Resource Investment Strategy Consultants, the Anglican Diocesan trustees and the Olympic Team Appeal for Western Australia. Mr Court was elected to the Western Australia Legislative Assembly in 1982. He served as Premier and Treasurer of Western Australia from 1993 to 2001.

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