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Newly appointed ambassadors from Japan to Australia are the envy of their colleagues: “How nice to be appointed to a country where there are no real outstanding issues to resolve,” they often say. The same is true of their Australian counterparts in Japan.
This is likely to change. Much like Japan’s ambassador to the United States and his U.S. counterpart, Japan and Australia’s ambassadors will have to take on the momentous task of strengthening strategic cooperation on matters critical to national security.
Japan and Australia do not have the same kind of treaty-based alliance as Japan and the U.S. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the Japan-Australia relationship will develop into an alliance in substance if not in name. The context of this transformation is an ever-harsher international environment.
China is attempting to weaken the U.S.-led international order, and particularly U.S. alliances, which it views as a “relic of the Cold War era.” China is unlikely to hesitate at using its economic strength and market size as levers for compelling economic sanctions if it deems them necessary.
Furthermore, gaping social and political divisions prevent the U.S., an ally of both Japan and Australia, from fulfilling its role as a global leader. Although the Biden administration has proclaimed a renewed emphasis on alliances and greater participation in Asian affairs, trade policies and human rights-related issues may well hinder its attempts to re-engage with Asia.
For one, it will be difficult for the U.S. to join multilateral free trade agreements like the CPTPP, given opposition from labor unions within the Democratic Party’s support base. Second, in a departure from the Trump administration’s indifference to human rights violations, the Biden administration is loudly championing human rights concerns — yet it risks provoking a backlash among Asian countries if it pursues its goals in the wrong way.
Japan and Australia both worry the U.S. will abandon its external commitments to focus on domestic concerns, thereby weakening its international credibility and deterrence capabilities. It is increasingly vital that Japan and Australia join forces to press the U.S. to engage more deeply with Asia, strengthen its deterrence capabilities and create a free and open international order in the Indo-Pacific.
There are also growing calls for a stronger Japan-Australia alliance from within ASEAN.
Last month I attended a private, online conference of foreign policy experts from the chief allies of the U.S. and Asia. During this conference, a veteran ASEAN diplomat declared: “Today, Japan and Australia are ASEAN’s two most important dialogue partners… Both these countries are deeply committed to a multilateral and rules-based regional architecture.” He added, “Even as we encourage the Biden administration to re-engage with Asia, our expectations of [Japan and Australia] remain very high.”
When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited Japan last November, he and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga reached an agreement on the general framework of a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA). The RAA clarifies the legal status of Japanese and Australian armed forces operating in each other’s countries, including matters of criminal jurisdiction.
Although Japan’s continued use of capital punishment (and the question of whether Australian troops could face the death penalty if convicted of a serious crime in Japan) was a major sticking point in negotiations, both sides have finally made the concessions necessary to overcome this hurdle at the operational level. If the RAA agreement can be finalized, it will significantly improve the interoperability of Japanese and Australian armed forces.
Japan and Australia have already concluded an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and an agreement on the transfer of defense equipment and technology. The foreign and defense ministers of the two countries also engage in two plus two dialogues.
During the Abe administration, Japan established the legal basis for responding to requests from its allies to exercise (albeit in limited fashion) collective self-defense. In a reply before parliament, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe implied that Japan would come to the defense of not only the U.S., but also Australia, in the event of a crisis.
Nevertheless, the Japan-Australia relationship still falls well short of a true alliance. Australians view the pace of Japanese policymaking as far too slow. I have frequently heard irritation expressed regarding the fact that it took six years for Japan and Australia to reach an agreement on the general framework of the RAA.
There is also the matter of intelligence cooperation. Australia has been supportive of Japan’s inclusion in the “Five Eyes” (an alliance between the intelligence agencies of the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand), but feels that Japan’s “intelligence culture” is in need of reform.
Specific concerns include the professionalism and English language ability of Japanese intelligence officials (English is the de facto official language of the intelligence alliance), and the need to bridge the intelligence-policy divide and clarify the respective roles of each. Indeed, the U.S. remains cautious on the subject of Japan’s membership in the Five Eyes due to similar misgivings.
Japan, meanwhile, sees a risk in the large discrepancy between the policies (particularly the China policies) of successive Liberal and Labor administrations in Australia. It is also concerned about state governments’ indifference to national security issues, as illustrated by the Northern Territory government’s long-term lease of the strategically significant Darwin Port to a Chinese corporation.
Japan and Australia must cooperate to maintain and develop their U.S. alliance, jointly contribute to stabilizing economic relations with China, and include the U.S. in this effort to achieve a Japan-American-Australian model of cooperation. This would be the real added value of a Japan-Australia alliance.
Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.
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