For decades since the end of World War II, the United States has been Japan’s only real security ally, with the bilateral alliance being the biggest asset for its diplomacy and security.
But with the U.S. struggling with domestic political divide and conflicts with China, Japan should play a more active role in strengthening the deterrence capabilities of the bilateral alliance, including encouraging Washington to return to the Asia-Pacific framework.
In doing so, Japan should regard Australia as its second ally, building a full-scale strategic partnership that will benefit both countries and contribute to deepening cooperation between Japan, the U.S. and Australia.
Japan and Australia are facing significant common challenges — China’s aggression and display of its “strategic will to the sea”; its promotion of a surveillance state model backed by illiberal innovations spurred on by its military-civil fusion policy; its weaponization of economy as a geoeconomic tool; and its expansion of an exclusive sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
This comes amid the United States’ decline of prestige, the prolonging America First sentiment and a rising tide of inward-looking nationalism in the country, as well as the emergence of populism triggered by a deepening political and social divide.
As tensions between Washington and Beijing will likely remain largely unchanged under President Joe Biden’s administration, Japan and Australia are facing an urgent need to create an environment for the U.S. to rejoin efforts to build a multifaceted economy and trade framework.
While maintaining economic ties with China, Japan and Australia, as U.S. allies, should boost deterrence against Beijing and further strengthen security cooperation.
In order to face China as one, strategic dialogue between Japan, the U.S. and Australia is becoming ever more necessary.
Japan and Australia have signed the Acquisition and Cross-servicing Agreement (ACSA), the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and an agreement concerning the transfer of defense equipment and technology. The two nations have also been holding two-plus-two talks between foreign and defense ministers.
Although the two countries have not formed an alliance based on a treaty like Japan and the U.S., they are like-minded partners in what amounts to a quasi-alliance.
Japan has formed similar alliances with the United Kingdom, Canada, France and India, but its relationship with Australia became stronger in November as the two sides agreed in principle on the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) which clarifies the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces and Australian troops mutually visiting each other’s country, including allowing their personnel to be brought to justice through the other country’s criminal procedures.
The agreement is expected to help enhance the two nations’ interoperability, and the SDF and Australian military personnel are already visiting each other’s country.
Following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Australia deployed a C-17 transport aircraft to the U.S. military’s Yokota Air Base in Tokyo to operate a range of support flights.
In January last year, when Australia was battling devastating wildfires, Japan sent two C-130 Hercules transport planes to the Royal Australian Air Force Base Richmond to help carry Australian military personnel engaged in firefighting.
Last November, Japan, the U.S. and India held the annual Malabar joint military exercise in the Bay of Bengal in India, with Australia rejoining the drills for the first time in 13 years.
But in order to tighten security cooperation between Japan, the U.S. and Australia, it is necessary for Tokyo and Canberra to sign the RAA as soon as possible.
Under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, Japan passed a security legislation package that will allow it to exercise the right to collective self-defense — albeit under limited circumstances — to defend an ally.
In addition to the U.S., the government regards Australia as a country it should defend from an attack when not doing so could jeopardize Japan’s own safety and security.
Japan and Australia have also been bolstering joint efforts for economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific.
Japan led moves to launch the East Asia Summit in 2005 by inviting Australia, New Zealand and India to the forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plus Japan, China and South Korea.
During a visit to Australia in 2014, Abe signed the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement with then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
The two nations also worked together to conclude the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after then-U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew his country from the framework.
While the U.S. moved away from such multilateral forums in Asia and its presence declined in the region, Japan and Australia have cooperated to maintain and further develop free and open international order.
The policies of Japan and Australia in the Asia-Pacific region have been rooted in the idea of fusing Asia and the Pacific and not letting them divide, and are based on the strategy of incorporating U.S. interests in Asia into the multilateral framework in the region.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, launched in 1989 in Canberra and later upgraded to a summit meeting, is a regional cooperation initiative that clearly reflects such a philosophy of fusion.
Japan and Australia took leadership roles in establishing APEC and have since then promoted the free economic regionalism embodied in the forum, although it had faced attempts to push Asian interests without the U.S., such as the East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC), an idea put forward by then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in the 1990s.
George W. Bush was the only U.S. president who attended all the APEC summits during his time in power. This was made possible largely by Japan and Australia cooperating at the time to call on the U.S. president to take part in the meetings.
But now that the U.S. has drifted away, China appears to be trying to accelerate similar moves to create a regional forum excluding the U.S.
Japan and Australia must fight together against such actions under the flag of Indo-Pacific fusion aimed at extending open economic regionalism to India and Africa.
In 1995, I published “Asia Pacific Fusion: Japan’s Role in APEC,” a book describing the drama behind the creation of the APEC.
In the book, I touched on “Japan and the Pacific,” penned in English by late 19th century Japanese diplomat Manjiro Inagaki.
Inagaki wrote: “It has often puzzled me why Japan does not hold closer relations with Australia, especially as Australia is becoming one of her most important neighbors in commerce.”
While Inagaki’s goals of Japan partnering with a maritime nation in the Pacific were partially realized through Japan’s alliance with Britain, the Japan-Australia partnership he had advocated went unrealized for a long time.
However, an undersea cable connecting Japan and Australia via Guam has been completed, meaning Inagaki’s dream of Japan and Australia linking the northern and southern parts of the Pacific is coming true.
In the postwar era, reconciliation between the two nations deepened, backed by development of ties as like-minded democratic nations sharing common values, progressing economic interdependence and, above all, the Australian people’s receptiveness toward Japan.
In July 2014, in his remarks to the Australian Parliament, Abe said, “when we Japanese started out again after World War II, we thought long and hard over what had happened in the past, and came to make a vow for peace with our whole hearts.
“I wish to state my great and wholehearted gratitude for the spirit of tolerance and for the friendship that Australia has shown to Japan.”
Australian lawmakers responded with big applause.
Fear of being abandoned
As Abe signaled in his remarks, Australia is beginning to be recognized by Japan as a country with special ties which it should consult first when conducting regional diplomacy.
A top trade strategist from the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry described Australia as a country “which is befitting of an ally, a partner whom we can ask for advice in heart-to-heart talks when we are troubled or worried.”
Psychologically, Australia is already Japan’s second ally.
Allan Gyngell, an Australian diplomacy expert, argues that Canberra’s plays have been driven by the fear of being abandoned.
The nation has consistently paid dearly as a member of the Commonwealth, and also to maintain its alliance with the U.S.
Meanwhile, Japan has, since World War II, been cautious not to be drawn into wars involving the U.S. But with China’s aggression over the Senkaku Islands since the 2010s, Japan is beginning to fear it might be abandoned by Washington.
Japan and Australia have shared the fear of being abandoned by the U.S. during the Trump administration.
The Biden administration has said rebuilding relations with allies will be a key priority. It also said it is determined to preserve and proceed with the Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative advocated by previous administrations of Japan and the U.S.
Regarding security cooperation, it is necessary for Japan and Australia to create a guideline for designing joint operation plans for emergency scenarios in order to strengthen their interoperability.
The so-called “Quad” security dialogue between Japan, the U.S., Australia and India should also be bolstered, including upgrading it to a summit meeting, as part of efforts to stabilize the region.
To realize the Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative, economic security cooperation between Japan and Australia is indispensable in addition to promoting trade and economic growth.
Specifically, the two nations should cooperate in such areas as coping with moves to weaponize the economy leading to geoeonomic threats, defending themselves in space and cyberspace, maintaining the 5G network, securing and sharing rare earths and rare metal processing capabilities, and stepping up economic and technological intelligence.
Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative, an independent think tank based in Tokyo. API Geoeconomic Briefing, provided by API, is a series that looks into geopolitical and economic trends in the post-COVID-19 world, with a particular focus on technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.
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