Recently, I attended the Griffith Asia Institute’s fourth annual Australia-Japan Dialogue in Tokyo. Not surprisingly, a central theme of the workshop was whether Australia–Japan security and defence relations are on the cusp of a transformation, given that 2014 proved to be an active year for the relationship. Foremost was the signing of a new defence agreement during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit in July which opened the door for potential cooperation on Australia’s next submarine. Prime Minister Tony Abbott also called Japan a ‘strong ally’—leading to a fierce debate (including here and here) about the pros and cons of getting closer to Japan.
In both Canberra and Tokyo expectations are high about the strength of the future defence relationship. But it’s not self-evident that the momentum can be sustained. After all, the contemporary history of the defence relationship is one of highs followed by relative tranquillity. And there are at least three issues that will require close expectation management to consolidate the progress made.
The first regards the potential submarine deal, which would indeed be a milestone in the strategic relationship. The fact that the Abbott government agreed to enter into negotiations shows Japan is second only to the US in terms of Australia’s defence relations in Asia. A deal is not impossible despite a degree of scepticism in the Australian commentary about Japan’s ability to deliver. There’s much less resistance within the Japanese defence bureaucracy and the defence-industrial sector to such a deal than some assume. Also, the project isn’t solely dependent on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Instead, any future Japanese government is likely to support the deal given the growing status of Australia as a defence partner and because it’s the litmus test for Japan’s broader arms export ambitions.
On the other hand, it’s possible that the bilateral negotiations will reach a deadlock and/or that Australia will decide in the end to go with a European submarine design. Japan has only limited expertise in cutting such a complex military deal and negotiations on the working level are likely to prove cumbersome and frustrating for both sides. The possible repercussions shouldn’t be underestimated since both sides have invested significant capital in this issue. Whatever the outcome, Canberra and Tokyo will need to manage carefully either a much closer submarine cooperation program or a deal that falls through, and in either event there’d be challenges to overcome.
Secondly, the Australian side will need to keep in mind that Japan’s ‘security normalisation’ will be incremental rather than revolutionary, regardless of Prime Minister Abe’s ambitions. Lack of public enthusiasm for major defence policy changes, economic stagnation and a continued focus on the Chinese and North Korean challenges mean that Japan’s role in broader regional and global security is likely to remain constrained for the time being.
That’s not to say Japan won’t seek to strengthen its regional defence engagement. In particular, Tokyo’s increasing defence cooperation with some Southeast Asian countries—most notably the Philippines and Vietnam—are welcome steps from an Australian perspective. But Japan’s likely to remain focused on strengthening its deterrent capabilities vis-à-vis China and North Korea, and working with the US as an alliance partner in the North Pacific.
Finally, Japanese decision-makers need to remember that despite Prime Minister Abbott’s use of the term ‘ally’, there’s no binding treaty obligation for Australia to defend Japan in the worst case of a military conflict with China. For Australia, a decision about whether to engage militarily in a Northeast Asian conflict would turn principally on its US alliance commitments. That said, should the US decide to get involved, it’s likely that Canberra would provide political and military niche support—regardless of whether the ANZUS treaty technically applies or not.
Furthermore, the current government appears inclined to strengthen the ADF’s expeditionary capabilities for operations beyond the immediate region. Still, it remains to be seen if the upcoming 2015 Defence White Paper will discuss concrete steps for enhancing the ADF’s military engagement in East Asia. Moreover, while the strengthening of Australia-Japan security relations has in general enjoyed bipartisan support in Canberra, Coalition governments have traditionally been more enthusiastic for advancing the bilateral defence ties. Should Labour win the next federal election, the relationship could return to ‘business as usual’, barring dramatic changes in the security environment.
In sum, in 2014 political leaders in both countries used the trust built up over recent years to place the Australia–Japan defence relationship on the cusp of a much more productive exchange. China’s strategic behaviour in the region and the good chemistry between the two prime ministers also played a part. But success in achieving the ambitious agenda is by no means guaranteed and high expectations could lead to mutual disappointment. 2015 might well prove another litmus test with the Abbott government widely expected to decide on Australia’s future submarine.