Potential co-operation between Japanese and Australian companies in south-east Asia was a key theme of the annual conference of the Australia Japan Business Co-operation Committee (AJBCC) this month as the participants sought new opportunities beyond resources.
The discussion about the ASEAN region has also been fuelled by the example of two of the largest investments by Japanese companies in Australia outside the traditional resources sector: Kirin's purchase of various food assets within its subsidiary Lion Company and Japan Post's purchase of Toll Group.
AJBCC chairman Rod Eddington said the conference had underlined the new business opportunities in the region between the two countries on Australia's doorstep.
"It's clear if we are going to meet the challenges and create opportunities we need to find new ways to work together," he said.
South-east Asia has been on the agenda of the AJBCC for some time since Australian and Japanese companies mounted a joint trade mission to Indonesia looking at possible areas where they could mount joint bids.
There have been few concrete examples of the idea so far despite the suggestion that businesses from the two countries each have specific skills and contacts which could be pooled. Kirin's plans to combine its Asian marketing links with its Australian food products has seen it step up its focus on selling dairy products in the past year.
Mitsubishi group spin-off Kaiteki Fresh Australia generated some excitement with its rapid development of a fresh vegetable export business out of Melbourne into Singapore and Hong Kong so far.
The company is using Japanese hydroponic technology with some assistance from the Victorian government on water management with the intention of creating an all year round production cycle using the alternate northern and southern seasons.
"Japan is trying to emulate Australia in making an export business of farming products. We can collaborate together to do more," says Kaiteki Fresh director Shoji Yamaguchi.
ANZ Bank Japan chief executive Grant Knuckey said the growing focus on offshore investment by large Japanese companies due to slow growth at home was creating immediate opportunities for joint ventures. But he said Australian businesses need a better presence in Japan to understand the strategies of these Japanese companies.
A senior executive of Mitsui, Masayuki Kinoshita, said his company's new focus on building food businesses in Australia in sectors such as wheat, beef and salt was driven by a strategy of exporting to ASEAN countries and other parts of Asia.
"We want to expand investment in food and to expand Australian exports to Asia," he said.
Toll's global logistics chief Chris Pearce, who is based in Singapore, says that under its new Japanese parent the company is seeking new business opportunities across the region with Japanese companies which already have operations.
And Bluescope Steel's decision to sell half its south-east Asian business to Nippon Steel Sumitomo Metals Corporation has also opened doors to new opportunities.
NS Bluescope vice-president Simon Linge says the company is now producing two varieties of a specialist Nippon Steel product used in home appliance manufacturing at its Thai factory.
He says: "It (the joint venture) helps us get access to the Japanese customers which manufacture home appliances and also in the building and construction market."
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