If I understand Iain Henry correctly, he says that it’s okay for Australia to have a ‘limited’ defence relationship with Japan, which includes buying submarines, but nothing more should be done out of a concern that this would buy us into a conflict with China over the Senkakus. However, a ‘military alliance’ with Japan ‘might be wise’ ‘if America fully commits to using diplomatic and military means to coerce China into accepting an international society governed by rules and laws.’ He isn’t sure though that the US is as committed to the defence of Japan as all that, and on those grounds Australia has to sit on its hands.
It takes a little while to sort through this argument. What I understand is that Canberra and Tokyo have signed an agreement on defence industrial cooperation similar to agreements Japan has with the US and the UK. Submarine cooperation may emerge from that, but it’s some way off. Other defence engagement will continue much along the lines it has for years. The only people talking about alliances—a formal treaty commitment to act in each other’s defence—are those who apparently don’t want them.
Australia’s positive engagement with Japan over the last half century helps to provide some context for understanding why and how it’s possible for the two countries to decide to work more closely on defence. That bilateral relationship isn’t a football to be kicked between Beijing and Washington or amended to take account of every change of tone in Chinese editorials or John Kerry’s commentary.
It’s equally important to see this development in the context of Australia’s broadening relations with China and South Korea. Too much ‘China-choice’ thinking may incline some to treat every Australian policy move as a move on the China-choice chessboard. It’s not that black and white. Australia has good relations with China and will continue to build defence and strategic cooperation with Beijing. Iain’s tweet is blunt: ‘It’s not even that they’re trying to quiet debate—they’re implying dissenters secretly want Chinese rule of Asia’. I’ll pass over who the ‘they’ refers to and simply note that policy debate in Australia is robust and all the better for it. That doesn’t involve disparaging anyone. The grown-ups can handle it.
Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI.