Japan's Abe, Pence to visit Australia amid China concerns

Regional security and the strengthening of ties with Japan and the U.S. will be high on the agenda for Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison when he meets leaders from both countries amid continuing concerns about the growing influence of China in the Asia-Pacific.

Morrison will meet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday, when Abe makes a flying visit to Darwin between a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore and the weekend's meeting of leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Papua New Guinea. Abe will become the first Japanese leader to visit Darwin since the bombing of the northern Australian city by Japanese forces in World War II.

Morrison will then hold meetings with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during the APEC meeting in Port Moresby. Pence will use the northern Australian city of Cairns as his base for those meetings amid concerns over security in Papua New Guinea. It's expected several other APEC leaders will also stay in Cairns.

Trade and investment will be a major focus of Morrison's meetings with Abe, who will use his Darwin trip to also visit Japan's biggest ever foreign investment, the $40 billion Ichthys gas project in which Japanese firm Inpex is the majority shareholder and operator. The project, which pipes offshore gas from the northwest Australian coast to Darwin, began its first shipments of liquefied natural gas to Japan last month.

Morrison said he and Abe would also acknowledge those who served in World War II, in a pointed gesture in the northern port city that was bombed by Japanese forces in 1942, with the loss of 250 lives.

"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," Morrison said in a statement.

The meeting comes at a time when a key topic for Australia, its second-largest trading partner Japan and other Asian and South Pacific neighbors is how to respond to the growing influence of China, Australia's biggest trading partner.

Australia and Japan are expected to reach agreement in Darwin to facilitate larger and more regular joint military exercises, part of a strengthening of defense and economic ties amid growing uncertainty about American involvement in Asia under the Trump administration.

Negotiations began in 2014 for the Reciprocal Access Agreement, which would make it easier for Japanese and Australian forces to visit either country with equipment for military exercises.

An official from Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the Australian Financial Review newspaper this week that the two countries were "at the final stage in discussions" on the agreement, set to become the first pact on visiting forces Tokyo has signed outside of its arrangement with the U.S.

Japan is also expected to welcome Australia's new foreign policy shift toward the southwest Pacific announced last week. Canberra will set up a 2 billion Australian dollar ($1.4 billion) fund to support infrastructure projects in the region, which fits with Japan's call for alternative sources of investment to China's Belt and Road Initiative.

Morrison will also meet Pence in Port Moresby, where the vice president is expected to deliver a speech at the APEC CEO Summit on Saturday morning continuing Washington's push against China's growing influence. Pence is due to talk just minutes after an address to the forum by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Morrison will also address the gathering

As the U.S. trade war with China continues, Pence is expected to maintain a hard line against Beijing, following a speech he delivered last month accusing China of stealing U.S. intellectual property, meddling in American elections and suppressing human rights.

Pence is also expected to increase pressure on China over its militarization of the disputed South China Sea, the need to maintain pressure on North Korea to denuclearize and on the fight against terrorism.

Pence's press secretary Alyssa Farah said he would "deliver the message that authoritarianism, aggression, and the disregard for other nations' sovereignty by any nation in the Indo-Pacific will not be tolerated by the United States."

The vice president is also expected to set out Washington's rival vision for the Indo-Pacific, promoting private investment over state-controlled funding to build regional infrastructure, in reaction to Chinese involvement in the South Pacific in recent years.

In an opinion piece for the Washington Post last weekend, Pence wrote: "The United States will work with like-minded nations — from India to the Pacific islands — to advance our shared interests. Together, we will stand up to anyone who threatens our interests and our values. The United States seeks collaboration, not control."

Australia will show off a heavy military presence around the APEC meeting to maintain security including a helicopter-landing ship, fighter jets and 500 troops to be stationed in Port Moresby.

The U.S., Japan, China, Canada, New Zealand and Indonesia are also contributing to security arrangements.