ASPI’S decades: Japan and Australia go from tri to Quad

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

Australia built a triangular security relationship with Japan and the US in the first decade of the 21st century.

In the second decade, at the second attempt, the triangle became the Quad with India. China’s anger helped sink Quad 1.0, while China’s actions revived Quad 2.0.

Japan was the most cautious in accepting the trilateral, but became the cheerleader for the Quad.

The shape of Australia’s trilateral with Japan and the US was prematurely revealed in the main committee room of the Australian Parliament in July 2001.

Concluding the annual AUSMIN with a press conference, US Secretary of State Colin Powell was lobbed a final question about linking the separate US alliances in Asia: Could the US join together its bilateral alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia? Powell delighted and surprised the journalists by giving a revealing answer:

Interesting, we were talking about this subject earlier in the day, as to whether or not we might find ways of talking more in that kind of a forum. I don’t think it would lead to any formal arrangement of the kind you suggest. But there might be a need for us to seek opportunities to come together and talk more often. So yes, we’ve talked about that, but not in the form of some formal kind of new organization. We just began speaking about that today.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, sitting beside Powell, glimpsed a diplomatic flashing light.

Downer confirmed that Australia had held informal discussions with Japan while issuing a caution: ‘So as not to allow a hare to rush away here, we obviously—I think it must be obvious—wouldn’t want new architecture in East Asia which would be an attempt to kind of replicate NATO or something like that. We are talking here just about an informal dialogue.’

Downer walked back to his office telling staff he’d headed off a diplomatic explosion.

On the contrary, his denial of an Asian version of NATO created an instant label that has echoed ever since in China’s strategic community.

The foreign minister had triggered the Henry Kissinger rule on denials. Kissinger said that when a state denies it intends to do something it sends two signals. One message is that, for the moment, the country will not do something. But the second is that the denial is a statement that the country has the capacity to take such action if it chooses.

NATO was about opposing the Soviet Union, just as Asia’s non-NATO is about China. At every stage of the process that created a trilateral—and then the Quad—Canberra has denied that it’s about China. The ‘doth protest too much’ line works as well from Hamlet as Kissinger.

The denial of a NATO-style unification of forces and single command is patently true. That bit of denial fits the facts. The demurral about responding to China, though, became increasingly disingenuous. What were once barbed questions about China’s real intentions in the trilateral became responses to China’s actions in the second version of the Quad.

The absence of South Korea from the joined-up alliance structure mooted in 2001 points to China’s magnetic abilities, as well as the continuing schism between Seoul and Tokyo.

Looking back at the triangle creation, Downer said China ‘objected right from the word go when we started the diplomacy of trying to set up the trilateral strategic dialogue’. The US was interested in the trilateral, but he got a dismissive response from Japan’s foreign minister (presumably Yohei Kono). Downer recalled:

I took it up with the then Japanese Foreign Minister, very unsuccessfully initially. He said to me, ‘Minister, why would we bother to have a trilateral security dialogue with a country like Australia. You’re not a very significant country compared to the US.’ I thought this was not terribly diplomatic. I remember when I am crossed. He passed as the Foreign Minister and others came. The Japanese Foreign Ministry was pretty supportive.

By 2005, John Howard was hailing the coming together of three great Pacific democracies to work ‘more closely than ever’ on shared security challenges:

Our Trilateral Security Dialogue has added a new dimension to the value all sides place on alliance relationships … This quiet revolution in Japan’s external policy—one which Australia has long encouraged—is a welcome sign of a more confident Japan assuming its rightful place in the world and in our region.

After the lost decade of the 1990s, Japan began to redefine its regional role and itself, with the idea that it would become a ‘normal nation’.

‘Towards being a more normal nation’ was the title of the speech by the director of the Japan Institute of International Affairs, Makio Miyagawa, at ASPI’s 2005 Global Forces conference: ‘Anxiety about China’s military build-up has heightened the sense of urgency inside Japan for re-evaluating its defence strategy and addressing new security realities.’

What started as dialogue between senior officials in 2002 shifted up in 2006 to the foreign ministers of Japan and Australia and the US secretary of state.

In 2007, Howard flew to Tokyo to sign the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation with Japan’s Shinzo Abe.

Howard said the agreement meant Japan would have a closer security relationship with Australia than with any other country except the US. The briefing line to Canberra correspondents was that Howard was willing for a more ambitious alliance treaty, but Tokyo was cautious.

Australia would have preferred to sign a formal defence treaty, Aurelia George Mulgan wrote, but ‘settled for the declaration in the hope of moving to a formal pact at some time in the future. The end game is, therefore, potentially much more momentous: a profound shift in the security architecture of the Asia Pacific.’

Whatever the spirit Howard intended, the agreement had no provisions for the parties to come to each other’s aid if attacked, instead stating that ‘Japan and Australia will, as appropriate, strengthen practical cooperation’ between defence and security forces.

Howard said the declaration built a ‘strategic dimension’ to the partnership: ‘Japan had become, to most Australians, a key partner, economically, and now strategically.’ In his memoir, Howard wrote that ‘China’s great power ambitions’ meant that ‘one of the shrewdest foreign policy thrusts of the Bush Administration was to encourage the trilateral security dialogue between the United States, Japan and Australia. The possibility of extending it to include India, thus creating a quadrilateral dialogue, was raised during the Bush presidency.’

The trilateral was ‘an unexceptional way of providing a democratic counterbalance to China’, Howard said, and was a ‘democratic riposte’ quietly welcomed by some of the smaller nations of the region.

ASPI’s Rod Lyon said the 2007 Australia–Japan declaration confirmed that the Asian security order was moving into a new phase:

Although the pact is limited in its scope, it heralds an age when Asian great powers will be more engaged in the regional security architecture, both as players in their own right and as ‘partners’ to other regional countries. This phase of Asian security will probably take ten to twenty years to run its course. But when it has finished, the age of US hegemony in Asia will have ended. The US might well still be the strongest player, even then, but Asian security arrangements will have taken on many more of the characteristics of multipolarity.

The security agreement and the start of negotiations for an Australia–Japan free trade agreement were both surprises, according to George Mulgan. Since the 1970s, this had been a relationship of ‘rather dull predictability’. Much, though, was shifting. In May 2007, she noted, China had assumed Japan’s position as Australia’s largest trading partner.

Japan was hedging against China, George Mulgan said, but also the danger that the US would swing towards China and downgrade the importance of Japan:

Japan fears being isolated by the US and China on East Asian strategic issues. Hence, it wants to create a Japan‑centred economic and security system in which it can exercise influence independently of both China and the United States. Building a direct security link with Australia (and India) provides a convenient vehicle for Japan to exercise greater strategic autonomy.

In December 2007, the 1.5-track dialogue conducted by ASPI and the Japan Institute of International Affairs discussed a ‘maritime coalition centred on the Japan–Australia–US trilateral alliance’, how to respond to ‘strategic shocks in Asia’, the ‘impacts of China’s rise on the Asian international system’, the role of the two nations in the emerging Asia–Pacific security architecture, and prospects for the Australia–Japan security relationship.

Apart from Japan and Australia, speakers at the two-day conference mentioned the US 62 times, India and the Indian Ocean 116 times, and China or the East China Sea got 466 mentions.

Drawn from the book on the institute’s first 20 years: An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001–2021.