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Japan and Australia: natural allies in the changing Pacific

by Ramesh Thakur

Does the U.S. pivot to the Pacific represent a necessary rebalancing, overbalancing or counter-balancing against China’s growing wealth, power and assertiveness? Few third countries have a bigger stake in the correct answer to this critical question than Australia and Japan.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared during his U.S. visit last month that Japan is back. It neither is nor ever will be “a second-tier country,” he added for good measure. This might sound like bravado. Japan has been in economic slump for two decades and is one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world with a shrinking population and a rising elderly cohort.

Still, talk of a declining Japan is relative. Everything considered, I would rather live as a national in declining Japan than in rising China or India. Per capita incomes are extremely high; universal literacy and exceptionally high life expectancy testify to excellent educational and health standards; and the sense of community, social cohesion, civic pride and low crime rates even amid the densest of urban settings were abundantly evident in the manner in which people dealt with the great earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.

Australia-Japan enmity during World War II was a historical aberration. Strong economic relations, shared security ties and comfortable political relations have been the norm. The bases for contemporary close and warm relations are common political values, societies based on the rule of law, strong market economies, open trade policies, and complementary political and security interests.

Australia and Japan are natural trans-Pacific friends and allies. Japan is a major economic power in the world and an important actor in the region. The two, among a small number of full-fledged industrial liberal democracies in Asia-Pacific, are the northern and southern anchors of the Western alliance system. Within the alliance, both pursue “good international citizenship” in peacekeeping, human rights, foreign aid and so on.

During the Cold War, Japan’s role was essentially inward looking. Since the end of the Cold War, Japan’s enhanced security relationship with Australia includes joint humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, cooperative efforts in counter-terrorism and border protection, maritime security (including joint anti-piracy operations and naval and coast guard exercises for protecting sea lanes of security around the Indian Ocean), counter-proliferation (for example the Proliferation Security Initiative), and international peacekeeping and stabilization operations.

Aware of the delicacy of the peace article in Japan’s Constitution, Australian troops in effect babysat their Japanese counterparts when Japanese Self-Defense Force units were deployed to places like Iraq and Sudan because of the unique constraints on the deployment of Japanese soldiers into overseas combat environments.

Both have long sheltered under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and promoted arms control and disarmament initiatives from the relative safety of that umbrella. The two countries were united in condemning French nuclear tests in the Pacific until the mid-1990s, India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998, and North Korea’s tests in 2006, 2009 and this year. Their foreign aid programs have generally been complementary. There is a broad and deep set of institutionalized cultural and academic exchanges.

Canberra and Tokyo have also been close collaborators in promoting open economic regionalism around the Pacific, for example through the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum; in encouraging growing regional cooperation in Southeast Asia led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; in fostering security dialogue in particular under the auspices of the ASEAN Regional Forum; and in exploring other forums and opportunities for regional mechanisms and institutions.

A troubling but manageable irritant has been Japan’s whaling in the southern oceans. Few Japanese seem to realize just how damaging it is to pretend there is a scientific research gloss as the alibi for the annual whale hunt. While the Australian government tries to keep the issue in perspective, anti-whaling activists have no compunction about complicating the government-to-government relations.

Spurred by the reality of its relative decline, Japan has actively repositioned itself at the center of a network of regional initiatives and developments that increase its role as the provider of regional public goods in economic, diplomatic and security spheres, not the least by building on prior relations with the United States and Australia, and forging new ones with India.

This was most dramatically evident in the response to the December 2004 great Indian Ocean tsunami when Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. formed the core coordination group that eventually handed over the role to the U.N.

Like the nascent but growing Australia-India relationship, there is the risk of discerning a hard anti-China edge to the strengthening security cooperation between Australia and Japan. In a warning overloaded with animal metaphors, Senior Col. Liu Mingfu of the People’s Liberation Army described the United States as “the global tiger,” Japan as the Asian “wolf” and said that “both are now badly biting China.” Continuing, he warned that Australia should not “play the jackal for the tiger or dance with the wolf” but instead be a “kind-hearted lamb” that China would help from being led astray.

From Canberra’s perspective, giving depth and texture to the bilateral security relationship with Tokyo will provide ballast for and strengthen regional security, not weaken it. At the same time, both because of constitutional constraints and public nervousness in Japan and regional apprehensions about a remilitarized Japan, any move toward making Japan a “normal” country has to be very delicately managed.

The payoff will be that a normal Japan could be an anchor of regional security and provide practical contributions to efforts to promote regional peace and prosperity. The alternative is that Japan retreats inward, becomes more introspective, turns to the hard right, remilitarizes and perhaps acquires nuclear weapons.

Few countries are more dependent on the continuing health of China’s economy than Australia, and none more dependent on a broadening and deepening of China’s consumer market than Japan. While Canberra’s “natural” inclination might be to side with Japan, there will be a significant economic cost in the relationship with China. Therefore the natural inclination may not eventuate if Japan is seen to have been unduly provocative or intransigent.

There is no such “natural” sentiment when it comes to Japan’s dispute, also rooted deeply in history, with Korea. Indeed on the question of war crimes and the enslavement of comfort women, Australian and American friends of Japan are no less exasperated at the history-denying tendencies in Japan than Chinese and Koreans.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

  • Darryl McGarry

    The question on my mind from the way Japan has conducted itself in terms of whaling in a whaling sanctuary in the Southern Ocean is will Japan try to portray itself the dominant, dogmatic partner in the relationship telling Austalia what to do?
    Japan as a nation lives in splendid isolation from the rest of the world and – generally speaking – is ignorant of how it is perceived by others.
    For example, the proud nation of Japan has now merely become the plaything of Sea Sheperd. While both parties are condemned for how they conduct themselves at the official level, behind the scenes everybody claps for the Sea Shepherd and laughs at Japan from behind their collective hands when the Japanese whalers are shown up.
    Ban, ban, banzai!