Commentary / Japan

Japan's not hedging with Australia security ties

by Michael Macarthur Bosack

On Wednesday, the Air Self-Defense Force concluded Exercise Bushido Guardian with Australian counterparts in Chitose, Hokkaido. Last week, the Maritime Self-Defense Force finished up Exercise Malabar with U.S. and Indian participants out of Atsugi Air Base, Kanagawa Prefecture. Starting this week, the MSDF will be participating in Exercise Joint Warrior in the United Kingdom and the Ground Self-Defense Force will take part in the amphibious assault exercise Kamandag in the Philippines.

This level of interaction with foreign militaries is not only unprecedented, it would have seemed impossible just a decade ago for the Self-Defense Force. It is becoming increasingly commonplace though, to the point that Japan has been actively negotiating international agreements to allow for more routine operations by foreign forces in Japan and vice versa.

Certainly, the Japanese government has made great strides in expanding its portfolio of active security partners in recent years, but why?

For years, scholars and analysts have repackaged the same answer to that question: Japan is hedging. Here, hedging means that a country is pursuing opposite policies at the same time in case one should fail. In this case, observers argue that Japan is simultaneously seeking to strengthen its alliance with the United States while pursuing stronger security relations with other partners should the U.S. government decide to pull its support from Japan. The prevailing notion here is that the less confidence there is in the  Japan-U.S. alliance, the more effort the Japanese government will put into building relations with other countries.

The issue of alliance credibility is always a consideration for government officials, whether it’s the Japan-U.S. alliance or elsewhere. Especially now, as cost-sharing and burden-sharing debates capture much media attention, there is cause for the perception that alternatives may be necessary to “hedge one’s bets.” The problem with applying that logic to the Japan-U.S. alliance is that it ignores four key points.

The first is practical: No other security partner available to Japan can supplant all that the U.S. provides as an ally. An obvious example here is the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Extended deterrence is a core element of Japan’s security posture, and it is something that other prospective security partners, even nuclear armed ones like the U.K. and France, cannot provide.

There is also the treaty obligation to defend Japan. At times, many have argued that U.S. commitment to Japan has waned, but the U.S. agreement to defend Japan in the event of an armed attack is unlike any Japan could hope to receive from another world power, especially one that could make a difference in the event of an armed conflict with a regional adversary. In this case, the existence of a U.S. defense obligation is substantially better than no obligation at all.

Beyond those two key factors, Japan’s security institutions, procurement and sustainment designs, and operations are tied to the U.S. in ways that no other country can emulate. The infrastructure, acquisitions programs, supply chains and maintenance facilities, among other things, are so intertwined that it would be a fool’s errand to pursue any policies that seek to unwind them.

By no means is this meant to imply that Japan is “stuck” with its U.S. partner, because the alliance remains strong and mutually beneficial to both countries. The point here simply means that any Japanese policy looking at expanding security partnerships is deliberately in concert with strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance, not as a hedging option.

The second point is that the Japanese government has matured its strategic policymaking. For years, observers and analysts could justifiably argue that Japan followed the U.S. lead in foreign policy and defense, but that is not the case anymore. Take the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy for example. This strategy’s gestation began within the Japanese bureaucracy in the late 2000s and started to mature with the return of the Abe administration in 2012. It is now a fully realized security strategy with whole-of-government action behind it, and for the first time in the alliance’s history, the U.S. adopted a Japanese naming convention for its own regional strategy. That is not hedging, it represents initiative from the Japanese government.

The third point is related to the second in that Japan is executing its strategy. Part of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy is aligning middle powers against rising Chinese influence. One of the key efforts for Japan is providing an alternative to China. For certain countries like Australia, this point is especially salient.

Although Australia has demonstrated a much stronger stance against China in recent years, there was a time when that was not the case. It is not a coincidence that Japan sought to institutionalize stronger bilateral ties with Australia at the same time that the pro-China Rudd administration was in power, and building upon that relationship supports Japan’s broader aims for the region.

Beyond simply presenting an alternative to China, Japan has actively taken steps to align itself with the so-called middle powers that support the status quo. That status quo is often referred to as the “rules-based international order,” and Australia, the U.K., France, the Philippines, India, Canada, New Zealand and others are all countries seeking to preserve it. Japan has deliberately reached out to them, increasing exercise participation with those countries, and in some cases, working toward formalized instruments of alignment, whether in the form of a mutual logistics agreement, military information-sharing agreement or visiting forces agreement.

The fourth point is that the U.S. has actively facilitated Japan’s outreach to other security partners. Given this, can it really be called hedging against the U.S. if the U.S. government has actively encouraged it?

The 2015 Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation specifically calls for the allies to foster multilateral cooperation. The 2019 two-plus-two joint statement cites the need for an “increasingly networked structure of alliances and partnerships, anchored by the U.S.-Japan alliance.” Most of Japan’s bilateral military engagements have started as trilateral efforts, most notably between the U.S., Japan and Australia, but also with South Korea and India, respectively.

So if Japan’s effort to build partnerships with other nations is not hedging, what would be considered “hedging” and what are we seeing now?

For Japan, hedging could come in two forms. The first is a move to strengthen cooperation with U.S. adversaries such as China and Russia. While the Abe administration has sought to build ties with Russia, it has exercised restraint in how far and how fast it is willing to move with an exploitative Putin government. Also, while the Japanese government is cautious not to antagonize China, its policies could hardly be characterized as geared toward alignment with the regional contender.

The second form of hedging would come in Japan’s pursuit of indigenous capabilities that could supplant what the U.S. provides. The problem for Japan is that to accomplish that task, it would have to make major changes to its defense budget and security legislation, both of which are untenable in the current political, economic and social environment. There is also the thorny issue of nuclear weapons, which Japan has the technology to produce but not the political capital or public support necessary to do it.

Instead of hedging, observers should recognize Japan’s pursuit of security relationships with Australia, India, the U.K. and other world powers as part of Japan’s maturation as a Group of Seven leader. The country, once willing to let others take the lead in foreign policy and defense, is employing a comprehensive strategy. In that way, Japan is not really hedging, it is taking greater ownership of its stake in the regional and global security environment.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow and is a Ph.D. candidate at the International University of Japan.