Almost a century ago, the relationship between Japan and Australia was one of mistrust and suspicion. Now the two countries find themselves not only sharing the same values but also reaching new levels of military cooperation. Is the strengthening of bonds between Japan and Australia merely an attempt to balance China, or is it a sign of a more significant regional rebalancing?
A decade of development
In 2007, Japan and Australia signed their Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. The agreement was expansive, and it ensured the two countries would collaborate on law enforcement, peace operations, military exercises, and similar areas. The treaty, while strong, stops just short of a Security Treaty that would place the two in an alliance. In the decade since the two countries have been slowly getting closer, however, it would be wrong to assume that sheer cordiality has been the unifying factor.
Since 2014, Prime Minister Abe and then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott used the phrase ‘special strategic partnership’ to illustrate the relationship between their countries. In early 2017, following North Korean provocations, Japanese and Australian defence ministers held a series of meetings in which they highlighted their shared values and opposition to North Korean nuclear testing. At one of those meetings, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop claimed the two were “among the most like-minded nations in the Indo-Pacific”.
A 2018 meeting between Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Malcolm Turnbull had the two leaders reaffirm their commitment to better defence cooperation, re-emphasise their shared values. They further announced the negotiation of a new military pact that would make it easier for the two countries to perform collaborative exercises. The improved military agreement, known as the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), will be due for a vote in the Japanese Diet.
North Korea and Trump both share a part of the “blame”
The increasingly disruptive behaviour of North Korea, combined with the military advances visible in China, have been long-term factors that played into a need for Japanese rebalancing. President Donal Trump routinely attacked most of America’s allies for free-riding on the US – Japan included. His rhetoric further convinced Tokyo that it needs to diversify its portfolio in terms of military cooperation.
Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines, published in 2018, outlines this change in strategy. The emphasis is on the need to strengthen existing ties with the US, but also to seek security cooperation with other countries. China’s military development, the frequency and overall increase in North Korean military operations, as well as Russian military modernisation, are all highlighted as regional developments that justify an increase of investment in the Japanese military.
The Ministry of Defense has highlighted a number of potential security partners, such as Australia, India, the UK, amongst others. It highlights New Zealand (for joint training exercises, and equipment and technology cooperation), South Korea (in building a “foundation for collaboration”), and also mentioned Russia and China as countries Japan would be interested in having some level of engagement with, in order to guarantee deeper trust and stability.
Japan’s range of options is varied and it signifies that the country is open to multiple types of cooperation. Australia is, however, one of the best-positioned countries, even though there have been signs of closer cooperation with the UK and France.
Role of China
On the Australian side, it can be said there is less urgency in counterbalancing China. Australia does not have territorial disputes with China. The country is also more dependent on trade with China than Japan is. Nevertheless, the 2016 Australian Defense White Paper outlined the US as the critical strategic ally for Australia, yet it also stressed the need for developing the country’s partnerships with New Zealand, Japan, Indonesia, India, amongst others.
China is featured as a nation of strategic interest in both the Japanese and Australian defence papers, however, what sets it apart from most others is the lack of transparency and its position as a geostrategic power. The language in both documents tends to be more cautious, and it signifies that there is a certain reluctance from both to see China as an ally. There is a difference of norms and a sense that China might pose a strategic problem to them in the future, due to its territorial disputes, different government style, and general lack of transparency on critical issues.
The only rational outcome following Trump’s tough rhetoric
Trump’s tough approach might give him what he wants: allies that are less reliant on the US. Trump’s goal might be to coerce America’s allies to renegotiate their deals with the US. However, a side-effect of this policy seems to be the emerging tendency of US allies to rely on each other, and the development of the Japan-Australia alliance is one example.
Leaders from both countries have mostly refused to enter a war of words with the US President. Abe has been the world leader that has had the highest number of visits with Trump, courting him many ways, from playing golf to attending sumo events. In a 2018 address to the Heritage Foundation, Tony Abbott agreed that America’s allies have been free-riding, and claimed that “the world needs America more than America needs us”, and current Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to criticise Trump’s travel ban.
These leaders are indeed conservative, so they are joined together by a more muscular approach to foreign policy, but the strategic opening here is visible. It would be counterintuitive for both Australia and Japan to accept attacks and perform a mea culpa without considering the benefits that would come from it, and in this case, there seems to be an active search for a reliable network sans the US.
America has begun a policy of disengagement from its traditional alliance infrastructure. The result of this is not a weakening of the Western world. Instead, there is more cooperation between western powers to fill the void created by the US. While it can be argued that there have been moves by China and Russia to take over international responsibilities left by the US, a similar development is happening within its alliances, and in the Asia-Pacific, it has become increasingly noticeable. Should the trends started in the current US administration prove to be lasting, the Asia-Pacific might become a far tenser region.
Alin Barbantan is a Foreign Affairs and International Relations analyst with specialisation in History and Politics. Regional specialisation on NATO and East Asia. He is currently an international relations PhD student at the UCL Institute of the Americas on hegemony, burden-sharing and alliance “free riding”. MA from UCL, BA from Queen Mary, University of London. Published research on country case studies for international organisations concerning democratisation and anti-corruption. Worked, studied, and did on-location research in diverse environments.