The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Hawaii underscored once again the importance of wide-ranging cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. This concept of cooperation was first advocated by Japan and Australia several decades ago.

The reasons behind the two countries’ initiatives were rather complicated. Japan wanted to avoid being torn between Asia and the West, led by the United States and Europe, particularly at a time when European integration was about to deepen, and when the North American Free-Trade Agreement was in progress.

Australia was concerned about the future of its own identity as a “Western” nation, for it was becoming bound up more and more with its Asian neighbors, both economically and politically, as Asian economic development and democratization spread beyond Japan and as Asian immigration to Australia began to increase.

Other factors also brought Japan and Australia closer together in their efforts to build a new Asia-Pacific forum. On the Australian side, there was concern it was becoming a spoke in the hub of the large economic and trade circle dominated by Japan and the U.S. By taking the initiative to create a new, large forum, Australia sought to become an important economic and political player in the Asia-Pacific.

Japan, for its part, wished to mitigate the actual and potential ambivalent attitude of some Southeast Asian countries toward Japanese economic “dominance.” At the same time, development of regional integration in Europe and North America made Japan nervous about its position in the world. It was such Japanese concern that spurred Japan to become enthusiastic about Asia-Pacific cooperation.

Moreover, in the Japanese emphasis of the Asia-Pacific concept, there was an element of counterbalancing the U.S. policy of emphasizing trade and private investment rather than government-based development and technical assistance, which, until the middle 1990s, was Japan’s major diplomatic tool in developing countries in Southeast Asia.

Recently, however, all these factors have begun to eclipse if not completely disappear. The gigantic strides of the Chinese economy and the growing political assertiveness of China, together with the relative decline of the American economic weight in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the growing importance of global issues such as environmental policies, anti-terrorist activities, piracy problems and control of infectious diseases, have obliged Japan and Australia to redefine their roles in the Asia-Pacific and thus the nature of their relationship in the global community.

Instead of stressing Asia-Pacific cooperation, Japan and Australia have begun to intensify their bilateral defense and security cooperation with American support and encouragement. The role of the Australian troops in defending the Japanese Self Defense Forces dispatched to Samawah in Iraq was a good example of such cooperation. The most recent initiative of the Australian government sending large transport planes to help with rescue operations under Japanese authority in areas affected by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami was further evidence of the enlargement and deepening of the bilateral cooperation between the two countries.

Together with such cooperation, the Japan-U.S.-Australia tripartite policy dialogue on defense issues has been promoted, and bilateral cooperation between Australia and Japan now has wider international implications.

Such moves, both in the bilateral dimension and the trilateral sphere, could be further encouraged in view of the growing interdependence among Japan, the U.S. and Australia in the security field. We should, however, pay careful attention to the real nature of the Japan-Australia cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. The close bilateral contacts and activities in the defense area should not be confined to the “traditional” security issues such as defense against potential military threats. Japan-Australia cooperation should be developed in a much wider dimension to reach the so-called human security areas, including disaster prevention and poverty eradication in the developing world and even policy coordination of development assistance in the island nations of the Pacific.

Consequently, Australia-Japan cooperation in the security area should NOT be defined as a “strategic” partnership. The partnership between the two countries is much wider and deeper than a strategic one. We should be careful about the use of such expressions in describing the Japan-Australia relationship.

The concept of “strategic relationship” is often advocated and, indeed, actually applied between China and the U.S. Such a strategic relationship implies that, though the two nations may not be natural partners who share common thoughts and values, the two should, for “strategic” reasons, form a close relationship.

The Japan-Australia partnership should not be reduced to a strategic partnership in such a sense. It is a wider and deeper multidimensional and multifaceted relationship. Such a relationship could push various initiatives in those areas of the Asia-Pacific where the ideals and value judgments of the peoples of the two nations can converge for the long-term objective of economic stability, peacekeeping and human capacity building.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University and former president of the Japan Foundation, has served as Japanese ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Vietnam (1994-95), South Korea (1997-99) and France (1999-2002).

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