Stage is set for Australia and Japan to play a decisive role in the Indo-Pacific

At the Quad foreign ministers’ meeting on 3 March in New Delhi, the four principals reaffirmed their countries’ ‘steadfast commitment to supporting a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is inclusive and resilient’. Held a day after the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting, it showcased the vigour of the Quad—an informal minilateral framework of like-minded partners—despite differences over the conflict in Ukraine.

As in the past, the elephant in the room continued to be China.

Beijing’s revisionism and attempts at hegemony have fast-tracked the Indo-Pacific ideation of an aspirational, rules-based regionalism, and cemented the constellation of Australia, India, Japan and the United States. Indeed, China has unintentionally become the matchmaker for Australia and Japan’s blossoming relationship.

As what the late Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe called ‘neighbours at a longitude of 135 degrees east’, Australia and Japan now form the regional cornerstone that assures peace and stability in the Western Pacific. As democratic sea-faring powers, the two partners share a similar strategic outlook. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has brought them closer in their world views.

Adding volatility to complex geopolitical conditions, the combined effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have set a new stage for Australia and Japan by clarifying the perspectives of their Indo-Pacific strategies. The two must exploit this new international environment to safeguard peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific now that as China and Russia have, albeit differently, revealed their Achilles’ heels of strategic failures and structural weakness.

As members of the Quad, both states have flexibly explored multilayered collaboration with various partners within and outside the Quad. Bound by economic interdependence, geographical proximity and strategic convergence, both Australia and Japan have the means and willingness to realise a rules-based Indo-Pacific.

Conscious of their critical responsibility, Canberra and Tokyo have begun to show the resolve needed for joint efforts. Meeting in the Indian Ocean city of Perth in October last year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, released a compelling joint statement and issued a renewed joint declaration on security cooperation.

This, of course, came as an extension of the reinforced bilateral ties from the last decade. In defence cooperation, the two governments concluded an enforced acquisition and cross-servicing agreement and a reciprocal access agreement. For Japan, Australia is becoming close to an ally, second only to the US.

The complementary roles the two governments can play in reaching non-aligned states is critical as the ‘global south’ becomes a powerful megaphone to voice concerns in a fractured, multipolar world.

The good news is that both Tokyo and Canberra possess great strengths in their respective regions. Japan, for instance, can act in areas where Australia is less present such as Africa and Eurasia.

Yet their outlooks also converge in much of the Indo-Pacific. For example, the Partners in the Blue Pacific—a minilateral platform comprising Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the UK, and the US, established last year—aims to work closely with the Pacific Islands Forum. This is one more welcome development in the Pacific that will accompany Canberra’s and Tokyo’s enduring efforts.

Reaching out to ASEAN by embracing its centrality and engaging with its members matters. With the likely exception of the Philippines, coalition-building with ASEAN is largely stalemated as its members continue their strategic hedging between Beijing and Washington.

None are better placed to break this gridlock than Australia and Japan because of their economic ties and trusted engagement with the region.

Bringing Southeast Asian states ‘in’ to the Indo-Pacific is essential for peace and stability in the Western Pacific. But in the absence of a collective defence mechanism and given the Quad’s contextual limitations, the US-led security architecture will necessarily play the major role in an armed conflict scenario involving China and Taiwan. Nevertheless, support from ASEAN countries is imperative.

In military terms, on top of the US–Japan, ANZUS and AUKUS alliances, the lynchpin regional architecture remains the longstanding trilateral of Australia, Japan and the US, which frequently holds consultations and conducts drills. Buttressing the US hub-and-spokes system as part of a networked security architecture, Australia and Japan are vital guardians of regional peace.

There’s little doubt that Australia, as the National Security College’s Rory Medcalf says, is an ‘Indo-Pacific bellwether’. So, too, is Japan. With a moderate, benevolent image, the duo can better lead the cause for a rules-based order―a task the larger, hard-charging US often finds difficult.

The Quad leaders’ summit, to be held in Sydney next month, will further confirm their shared values and interests. The time is now for Australia and Japan to enter the new Indo-Pacific stage. In tandem with their partners and to keep their region free and open, the two must craft and carry out a politically astute geostrategy that responds to the requirements of our time.