Australia and Japan’s close relationship is based on common political values, market economies, open trade policies and overlapping security interests. The deepening bilateral security relationship includes taking part in joint humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, anti-piracy operations, as well as naval and coast guard exercises.
Both countries have condemned North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. Their foreign aid programs have generally been complementary, especially in the Pacific Islands. There is also an extensive suite of institutionalized cultural and academic exchanges.
Canberra and Tokyo have also been close collaborators in promoting open economic regionalism around the Pacific such as encouraging growing regional cooperation in Southeast Asia led by ASEAN; in fostering security dialogue in particular under the auspices of the ASEAN Regional Forum; and in expanding the strategic framework to cover the Indo-Pacific and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
In a warning bursting with law of the jungle metaphors issued in 2013, Liu Mingfu, then a senior colonel with the Chinese military, described the U.S. as “the global tiger,” Japan as “Asia’s wolf” and said that “both are now badly biting China.” He warned that Australia should not “play the jackal for the tiger or dance with the wolf” but instead be a “kind-hearted lamb,” which China would help from being led astray. In the years since, Australia and Japan have begun to worry about becoming lambs being led to slaughter by the neighborhood dragon.
On Oct. 19, defense ministers Nobuo Kishi and Linda Reynolds issued a joint statement on security cooperation that expressed “strong opposition to any destabilizing or coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions” in the region. The statement signaled a willingness to use the Japanese Self-Defense Force to protect Australian ships and planes in the region and foreshadowed a reciprocal logistical access agreement to deepen the interoperability of their militaries.
On Nov. 17, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison became the first foreign leader to visit Japan since Yoshihide Suga assumed the prime ministership. It was also Morrison’s first overseas trip during the pandemic. He said Australia and Japan are “natural partners with a shared outlook built up over many years.”
Testifying to the importance of personal diplomacy, Morrison in May communicated his desire in a hand-written note to then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that expressed his desire to conclude a deal on defense. Adding gravitas to the symbolism of Morison’s visit and the importance he placed on such intimate diplomacy was , in this year of COVID-19, the requirement that he would have to self-isolate for a fortnight on return to his home soil in order to make the trip happen. Top of the agenda was an in-principle agreement on reciprocal access after six years of negotiations, providing the legal framework for the two military forces to operate in each other’s countries.
This is Japan’s second agreement on allowing a foreign military presence in its territory, the first being the 1960 Status of Forces Agreement with the U.S. Japan considers Australia as a semi ally as this paper reported on Nov. 17. For his part Morrison said his relationship with Suga “got off to a cracker of a start,” although, somewhat unfortunately, his media release said the significance of the agreement “cannot be understated.”
The net result is that for both countries, the other becomes the most critical defense partner after the U.S. Working in tandem, the two can help to offset the power tilt in the Pacific region toward China caused by the gradual U.S. retreat. In that sense perhaps the agreement is better understood as an example of institutionalizing middle power military cooperation as a hedge against an unreliable U.S. rather than as a measure that gives teeth to Washington’s efforts to contain Beijing’s ambitions.
China appears to have learned little from the failure of decades of coercive U.S. diplomacy to bend Beijing and Pyongyang to superior American power. Both China and North Korea were prepared to pay a high, temporary price in order to build up national resilience to be able to withstand U.S. pressure. In keeping with China’s belligerent diplomacy, an editorial in the stridently nationalist Global Times warned that Australia and Japan will pay a price for becoming “tools” of U.S. policy by forging a quasi-alliance against China.
China’s approval ratings have plummeted in both countries owing to such bullying. Among Australians, trust toward China was the lowest ever recorded in the annual Lowy Poll at 23%. Perceptions of China as a positive economic partner have fallen from 82% to 55% since 2018 and feelings toward the Asian giant have cooled from 49 to 39 on a scale of 0-100 in just one year. As reported by The Japan Times on Nov. 18, the number of Japanese holding negative perceptions of China has risen to 89.7% in 2020 — up by 5% from last year and the first such rise in four years. The number of Chinese with negative impressions of Japan rose by a modest 0.2% to 52.9%. The U.S. was perceived as the top military threat by 84.1% of Chinese, with Japan second at 47.9%.
Reflecting public concerns in both countries, the Morrison-Suga joint statement reaffirmed the principle of “a free, open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific region where disputes are resolved peacefully and without the threat or use of force or coercion.” They also expressed “strong opposition to … continuing militarization of disputed features, dangerous and coercive use of coastguard vessels and ‘maritime militia’” in the South China Sea.
While both Japan and Australia are hedging against growing strategic uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific, neither wants to put all their eggs in a security-alliance basket with the U.S. Instead, both would want to remove irritants in their dealings with China and restore amicable relations, as symbolized in the signing of the 15-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with China, ASEAN-10, South Korea and New Zealand, but sans the U.S. There’s no mistaking the fact that Japan and Australia are the northern and southern anchors of stability and security in the Pacific. But the RCEP can help Australia and China to collaborate with the rest of the group to keep regional markets and the global trading system open and use the trade platform to counteract security frictions.
Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg offered an olive branch on Nov. 18 to try to soothe tensions by praising China’s management of the pandemic and its economy and expressing an openness to engage in dialogue. Beijing responded with a laundry list of grievances, put the blame solely on Australia and said it was Canberra’s responsibility to fix the problems it had created. True to the new wolf warrior diplomacy, the Chinese Embassy in Canberra added: “China is angry. If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy.”
Ramesh Thakur is an emeritus professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.
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