IT has taken nearly six decades. But, finally, the importance of the 1957 Australia-Japan Agreement on Commerce is being understood.

In his speech in Parliament House on Tuesday, Tony Abbott said that the 1957 agreement had “helped to spawn the iron oil and coal industries that have done so much for both countries”. The Prime Minister was speaking along with Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan, on the occasion of the signing the Economic Partnership Agreement between the two ­nations.

Japan’s then prime minister, Nobusuke Kishi, signed the original agreement in Tokyo in July 1957. It was co-signed by John McEwen, the then Country Party leader and minister for trade. Kishi visited Australia in late 1957.

Alan Watt, who was Australia’s ambassador to Japan at the time, described the delicacy of this operation in his book The Evolution of Australian Foreign Policy 1938-1965.

Watt wrote that “Kishi had been a member of the Tojo cabinet from 1941 to 1943 and after the war had been held in confinement by the occupation forces as a suspected A class war criminal.”

Kishi became prime minister in 1957. During his visit to Australia in late 1957, Kishi laid a wreath at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Despite some opposition from sections of the RSL, the visit was successful.

In the 1950s Japan appointed some fine ambassadors to Australia including Haruhiko Nishi, the first to hold this position. They helped to repair the relations between the two nations in the wake of the Pacific War and the appalling treatment by Japan of Allied prisoners of war.

However, this was very much a two-way process. Robert Menzies, who led the Coalition to victory in the December 1949 election, has been accused by some historians of lacking an interest in Asia.

Yet, in 1951, the Menzies government signed a generous peace treaty with Japan. This was criticised by Bert Evatt, Labor’s leader at the time.

After the signing of the peace treaty, Menzies and his foreign affairs minister Percy Spender made goodwill visits to Japan.

Gradually the trade relations between the two nations became a matter of mutual concern. In Australia, sections of the manufacturing industry were opposed to a commerce agreement but the agriculture sector was broadly in favour.

There was also a division at the political level. The Coalition, with the support of the nascent Democratic Labor Party which was influenced by BA Santamaria, backed the agreement. But not the Australian Labor Party.

On August 29, 1957, Evatt declared in the House of Representatives that “the treaty should not be adopted”.

Jim Cairns, the left-wing hero of his time, ran a classic protectionist line. On September 5, 1957, he claimed that if the agreement came to pass, “we will have a large volume of goods in Australia ­produced by cheap labour and modern machinery methods in Japan, competing with Australian industry.”

As documented in Wendy Way’s edited collection The Australian-Japan Agreement on Commerce 1957, Menzies worked hard in building support for the agreement. He delivered nationwide broadcasts arguing the case for normalising trading relations between Australia and Japan in September 1953 and March 1954. Both Menzies and McEwen took a political risk in advocating improved relations between Canberra and Tokyo.

The commerce agreement was revised in 1963 on the occasion of the visit to Australia of prime minister Hayato Ikeda (Kishi’s successor). Menzies was proud to claim that the 1957 agreement had succeeded due to the “genuine good faith between both nations”.

During his speech in Canberra on Tuesday, Abe praised Menzies’ “open minded” approach to Japan after World War II. The Japanese Prime Minister also delivered his condolences on behalf of “our fathers and grandfathers (who) lived in a time that saw Kokoda and Sandakan”. And he reflected on the imports of “Australian coal, iron ore and natural gas” that had helped to rebuild Japan’s industry after the end of hostilities.

Bilateral trade agreements are not as beneficial as globally negotiated free trade outcomes. However, many Australian exporters and all consumers will benefit from the current economic partnership agreement.

On Wednesday, former prime minister Malcolm Fraser criticised Abe’s speech. The Japanese Prime Minister commented that “there are many things that Japan and Australia can do by each of us joining hands with the United States”. Abe also urged that the seas and skies “from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean” remain open. And he explained why Japan “is now working to change its legal basis for security” so that Japan could work with other countries “to build an international order that upholds the rule of law”.

According to Fraser, Abe should have made such an address in Tokyo rather than Canberra — since he maintains that Abe’s comments were directed at China. On ABC radio 702 on Thursday, Canberra journalist Paul Bongiorno agreed with presenter Deborah Knight’s suggestion that it was “interesting that Malcolm Fraser would buy into this”.

Not really. These days Fraser readily buys into disputes in support of China and in opposition to Abbott. The former prime minister makes it clear in his bookDangerous Allies (written with the assistance of Cain Roberts) that he wants an end to the Australian-American alliance.

Such a view would find support among the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. But not in nations such as South Korea, The Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia, among others. All of which want the US to help ensure the security of the ­region.

Australia has enjoyed good relations with China, Japan and the US since Canberra recognised the government in Beijing in 1972.

There is no reason such good relations cannot continue. Australia needs all three nations in different ways.

And all three nations need Australia, also in different ways.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.