By TREVOR MARSHALLSEA
SYDNEY (AP) — Shinzo Abe became the first prime minister of Japan to visit Darwin since the northern Australian city was bombed by Japanese forces in World War II, as he and his Australian counterpart spoke Friday of strengthening defense and other ties between their countries.
Abe’s one-night stay was described by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison as a deeply symbolic one. It was also another chance for Japan and Australia to present a united front as regional partners in the Asia-Pacific amid ongoing concerns of spreading Chinese influence, including the country’s building of islands in the disputed South China Sea.
“Australia and Japan also stand united on the importance of resolving disputes in the South China Sea, peacefully and in accordance with international law, and we are strongly opposed to any actions that could increase tensions within the region,” Morrison said., reading from a prepared statement after meeting Abe.
He added that a “stable and secure regional maritime … order is central to both Australia and Japan’s visions for the region, and is underpinned by respect for international law.”
Morrison also said he looked forward to increased cooperation with Japan to support regional maritime safety and security. The leaders said they hope to conclude early next year an agreement on increased defense links, including more joint military exercises.
Abe said Japan and Australian would promote cooperation to strengthen the rule of law at sea. They also agreed to promote cooperation in providing building assistance for maritime security-related projects in Southeast Asian and Pacific island nations.
The two leaders reiterated their commitment to the denuclearization of North Korea, while Abe also praised Australia’s role in a revamped Pacific Rim free-trade agreement that President Donald Trump had pulled the U.S. out of. It comes into effect later this year.
“Darwin, connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans, is a crucial place for the stability and prosperity of the whole of the Indo-Pacific,” Abe said. “It is at this very place where Prime Minister Morrison and I confirmed our commitment to further deepen this special strategic partnership between Japan and Australia, in pursuit of our common vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Abe arrived for his visit Friday afternoon and immediately went to lay a wreath with Morrison at the city’s main war memorial. Abe then stood solemnly with head bowed as an army bugler played “The Last Post.”
The visit continues Abe’s moves to show remorse for Japan’s role in the war, following his trip to Pearl Harbor in 2016.
“Darwin was once the place where the former Japanese forces conducted their first air bombing against Australia, leading to much sacrifice,” Abe said. “At the war memorial, I extended my condolences in honor of all the foreign soldiers, and renewed my vow towards peace.”
On Saturday, Abe will honor his country’s war dead, visiting the memorial of the 80-crew Japanese submarine I-124, which was sunk off Darwin in January 1942.