How strategic is our strategic partnership with Japan?
22 Feb 2016|


‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less’. It would appear that there’s no dearth of Humpty Dumpties among those who draft the breathless joint communiqués that mark senior ministerial meetings. So, in December 2015: ‘The Prime Ministers reaffirmed the special strategic partnership between Japan and Australia, based on common values and strategic interests including democracy, human rights, the rule of law, open markets and free trade’.

Apart from the ‘special strategic partnership’ with Japan, Australia now boasts strategic partnerships with, inter alia, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and Singapore—not to mention the historical strategic partnerships with New Zealand, the UK and the US.

But what does ‘strategic partnership’ mean, or is it simply a question of debasing the coinage of language? Is Australia really considering going to Japan’s defence should it be threatened or attacked? Is Japan really considering the deployment of its military forces should Australia be threatened or attacked? Is the ‘strategic partnership’ a reflex of ANZUS, with Australia implicitly obligated to support the US in defending Japan? If it doesn’t address any or all of those questions, just what does ‘strategic partnership’ intend? And what does it mean to have a ‘strategic partnership’ with both China and Japan, as they bicker over the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea and exchange vituperation over Japanese atrocities in China and Manchuria 80 years ago?

As a newly minted diplomat, I was deployed in support of the first Australia Japan Ministerial Committee (as it was then called) meeting in October 1972. The five Japanese ministers and eight Australian counterparts, led by the Foreign Minister Nigel Bowen, sat across the table in the CSIRO Board Room in Canberra, just a couple of hundred metres from the composite remains of the Japanese midget submarines sunk in Sydney Harbour on 31 May 1942. Marked more by frosty formality than friendship, the consultations focused on broadening the trade and investment relationship. Not a word was said about defence, and, of course, no one mentioned the war! It appeared, nonetheless, that the fall of Singapore, the Burma railway, the Bangka Island executions, the massacre of the Gull Force POWs and the Sandakan March weighed on the minds of the Australian ministers.

So, over 40 years on, what has changed? The answer, of course, is two-fold: China, and our own insecurity and lack of confidence.

Just to be clear: I have no objection to closer defence ties with Japan. Indeed, I was one of the instigators of a closer defence relationship almost two decades ago. It makes even more sense today as Japan begins to play a more prominent role in humanitarian relief activities in the Pacific and UN peacekeeping operations globally. But when do closer defence relations become a ‘strategic partnership’?

Sound defence relationships are important. Discussion of matters of mutual interest and avenues for practical cooperation do much to dispel suspicion and build confidence, confidence based on transparency. Such relationships, however, fall a long way short of partnerships based on shared interests, shared values, and an acceptance of the risk and pain that would result from confrontation with a common adversary in a common cause.

China has embarked on the pursuit of regional policies that are assertive to the point of aggression. Naval confrontations in proximate waters and land reclamation in disputed seas impose direct challenges on its neighbours. They aren’t, however, challenges to Australia. Apart from a continuing interest in a rules-based approach to the resolution of regional disputes, we have no strategic interests at stake. They certainly aren’t matters over which any Australian government should contemplate the use of armed force.

We are nonetheless perplexed by China, and constantly find ourselves caught in the headlights of other nations’ problems. Too often our strategic prospects are portrayed in terms of a series of Hobson’s choices—between Washington and Beijing, Tokyo and Beijing, Washington and Moscow, New Delhi and Beijing. Our inability to resolve those confected antinomies is a direct consequence of our sense of isolation, our lack of confidence as a regional strategic player, our lack of comfort at being different, our unwillingness to invest seriously in our regional and global diplomacy, and our need to have ‘friends’, particularly great and powerful ones—in short, a sense of national insecurity that displays itself in a fawning need to be liked.

As the great Indonesia-born Malaysia-educated Australian Wang Gungwu pointed out almost a quarter of a century ago, Australia’s role in Asia is a function of our western liberal values (to which many Asians aspire), not the prospect of our somehow becoming Asian. Former Prime Minister Abbott’s  awkward identification of Japan as Australia’s ‘closest friend in Asia’ mistakes utility for similarity, sentimentality for substance. The fact that Australia is different and culturally aligned with the nations of Europe and North America is what affords us both strategic relevance and room for strategic manoeuvre.

Which brings us back to the power of language. Vague phrases and jargon are no substitute for meaning. If strategic partnerships are built upon common values, then what are the common values Australia shares with Japan? As an increasingly secular nation with an increasingly diluted Christian tradition, what do we truly share in common with a nation whose social structures are based on a markedly ethnocentric neo-Confucianism, and whose cultural practices are deeply informed by Shinto and Buddhism? These are what gives Japan its character and shape its values. They certainly don’t shape Australian values.

If ‘common values and strategic interests’ do form part of the suite of arguments supporting the eventual acquisition of the Soryu-class submarine, then one must hope that the rest of the arguments are more robust than that.