Peter Jennings gave a spirited response in the Oz last week to my thoughts about the trend of Australia–Japan strategic relations. I’m sure Peter is right that ‘there is no intent at this stage to sign a defence alliance between Japan and Australia’. But of course we shouldn’t wait until the decision has been made before asking whether it’s a good idea to head in that direction. Peter’s argument that it’s a good idea raises lots of important issues. Let me just focus on a couple—one about China and one about Japan.
China is clearly a key factor in this question, but I’m not quite sure where Peter stands on it. At one point he says Australia’s defence relationship with Japan has never been developed at the expense of our relationship with China. But later he says that China would clearly prefer that it not develop any further, and urges us not to allow this to dissuade us from building stronger strategic links with Japan anyway.
Whether we would be right to ignore China’s concerns depends on much wider questions about how best to keep Asia peaceful over the next few decades. Peter seems to agree with the predominant US and Japanese view that the best approach is to build a solid front of like-minded countries to ‘persuade’ China to accept the status quo with minor modifications. If this strategy—let’s call it containment—is workable, then an alliance with Japan would make some sense. But if, as I have argued elsewhere, the policy of containing China is mistaken, then so would an Australia-Japan alliance, because it would weaken rather than strengthen regional security.
This brings us to the question of Japan’s own role in the future Asian order. I absolutely agree with Peter that Asia, and Australia, needs Japan to do more in regional strategic affairs. But how? Peter wants Japan to keep its old role as US ally, and is surprised that I argue for a radical change in Japan’s strategic posture. But I argue for radical change because I think Japan’s post-war posture, which has worked so well until now, is not sustainable under the very different strategic circumstances of the Asian Century.
This is the heart of the matter. Underlying our different views on these specific issues is the much bigger question about how far the rise of China changes the fundamentals of the Asian order and of Australia’s strategic circumstances. Peter, I think, believes little fundamentally has changed. I don’t agree. We should debate that sometime.
Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at ANU and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Minnesota National Guard.