CANBERRA – Around 40 troops from the Ground Self-Defense Force are currently in northern Australia participating in the biennial Talisman Saber military exercise conducted between Australia and the United States. It’s the first time Japan has joined the drills, and represents the latest tightening of relations between the two countries as the U.S. allies respond to the Asia-Pacific’s vexed security situation.
While the trajectory of the Japan-Australia relationship has been established for the better part of the past decade, it has intensified since Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s election in September 2013.
In 2014 alone, an upgraded “Special Strategic Partnership for the 21st Century” was announced, a Japan-Australia economic partnership agreement was signed and the Japan-Australia Defense Cooperation Office was established in the Defense Ministry in Tokyo.
Most significantly, the two countries agreed on the transfer of defense equipment and military technology. Coupled with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s domestic moves to relax rules on Japan’s exports of defense equipment, the agreement opens the door for new and deeper defense cooperation, potentially on Australia’s future submarine — a move that would be suffused with symbolism.
Abbott has proclaimed Japan to be “Australia’s best friend in Asia” and “a strong ally” with which Australia has a “special relationship.” Japanese officials have similarly referred to Australia as a “quasi-ally.” While such claims are not yet borne out in reality, they speak to a unique closeness and are at the very least a sincere indication of the value and potential seen from Canberra and Tokyo.
But Australia isn’t the only Asia-Pacific nation with which Japan has seen relations blossom: India, particularly under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is another important partner.
Relations between Japan and India have been reinvigorated over the past 12 months by an alignment of the political stars. Abe and Modi are conservative, nationalist leaders of populous democracies who came to power professing a commitment to transformational economic reform and the restoration of national pride. The personal rapport between them is striking.
Abbott is cut from similar cloth, and has quickly built close personal relations with his Japanese and Indian counterparts.
Indeed, beyond personal qualities and close relationships at the head-of-state level, there’s a growing alignment of interests, values and concerns among Australia, Japan and India. All share an interest in preserving a peaceful and stable regional order and avoiding a Pax Sinica. All value democracy, freedom and the rule of law. And all are concerned by China’s military buildup, defiance of international law and norms and increasingly assertive attempts to unilaterally force a shift in the regional status quo.
The time is right for the trio to explore how they might work together to meet shared regional challenges in the coming years. Indeed, vice minister-level representation from the three countries convened in New Delhi last month to discuss just that.
Australia should now lean forward to develop the trilateral cooperation with Japan and India with a focus on diplomatic and military activities.
Trilateral cooperation between Australia, Japan and India is intended to support America’s presence in the Asia-Pacific and demonstrate a public commitment to international law, global norms and the established regional order.
While the three nations already have many good reasons to cooperate, a coalition of like-minded Asia-Pacific maritime democracies would also act as a balance against China, further complicate China’s strategic calculus and encourage Beijing to engage as a responsible stakeholder in the stable and open regional order.
The three countries last cooperated on security matters alongside the U.S. in a mechanism called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which was scuppered in 2008 at the behest of Australia’s newly elected Rudd government because of a fear that the grouping was perceived negatively in Beijing. Abbott, then the leader of the opposition, was highly critical of Rudd’s decision to walk away.
The idea of reconvening the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue has remained up for discussion over recent years. Modi was reported to have raised the grouping when he met with Abbott last November and with U.S. President Barack Obama in January.
Having advocated for the QSD in his 2006-2007 term only to see it whither, it was Abe’s acute sense of both shifting regional strategic balances and unfinished business that led him to pen a piece titled “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond” upon his return to the top job in 2012.
Abe wrote: “I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. state of Hawaii for a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific.” It surely remains a goal for his prime ministership.
Last month’s meeting between Australia, India and Japan is a step in the right direction. Deepening such engagement through exercises and dialogues would provide a sound foundation on which the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue could be reconstituted at a later date.
David Lang is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and is the author of a new report released by ASPI this week. He was recently a visiting research fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo. These are his personal views.