Tokyo–Canberra: it’s time to recast defence ties
29 Mar 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user Couleur.

The time has come for Australia and Japan to make an ambitious step-change in our cooperation.

We have the potential to act as a centre of strategic and democratic stability in the Asia-Pacific. The region needs us, and so the task will be to develop as close a military and strategic partnership as we can. Time is of the essence.

The global order, which has sustained the world’s growth and stability for more than 70 years is being challenged at numerous places and by numerous actors. We see a number of countries that are quite explicitly challenging the rules-based order.

Among those countries are Russia, China and Iran, all of whom reject the idea that current international norms apply to them.

When Russia invaded and annexed the Crimea in 2012 it broke a European norm not to violently seize another country’s sovereign territory.

China has similarly broken international law in annexing contested features in the South China Sea. Chinese militarisation of the South China Sea undermines the stability of the region. This is unfinished business, which can’t be ignored unless we accept that there will be a permanent change to the regional strategic balance.

Iran has applied its own version of hybrid warfare in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon in ways that unseat the regional balance in the Middle East and, potentially, could lead to wider conventional conflict and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Russia, China and Iran have, in effect, declared open-season on the rules-based regional order.

We see a worrying fragility emerging in Southeast Asia. ASEAN was never designed to operate as a strong model of military cooperation. As a political grouping, ASEAN does not appear to be able to operate with any consensus in the face of China’s island construction in the South China Sea.

Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia are deeply worried about the emergence of a strengthened terror threat, fueled by the return of potentially hundreds of Islamic State Fighters. Thailand remains under military rule with deep political fractures just below the surface.

In the South Pacific region we see a number of island states walking backward in terms of their political and social systems.

In North Asia Japan stands as a beacon of democratic stability, but there is a great deal to be worried about in the rest of the region. In China, the People’s Liberation Army is becoming much more capable at a rapid pace. A risk is that this will lead to over confident adventurism. That can lead to accident and miscalculation.

The Australia-Japan relationship must become much closer. We have the potential to act as a linchpin of stability in the region, the grouping that makes American engagement an attractive proposition to the White House, and a pillar for our friends and neighbours.

While we are developing close and practical defence ties, I think there is a need for our governments to make a high priority of pushing to achieve a step-change in cooperation. The aim should be to make our military forces as interoperable as they are with the US.

We need to think about how we might work together in high-end military operations. We should not limit our ambitions to areas like Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response (HADR), as important as that is.

I would like to see Australia and Japan make a special priority of working with each other in learning to operate the new Joint Strike Fighter. This fifth generation combat aircraft is a war winner, and the closer we can be in joint operational concepts the better.

Our governments should also make a priority of driving our forces closer together on anti-submarine warfare, ballistic missile defence, space and cyber cooperation. Governments should allocate funds specifically to boost bilateral cooperation in this area.

Relationships like this don’t happen by accident. It takes political leadership. It requires governments to decide real priorities and to invest in ways that push the two countries closer together.

There are also some exciting trilateral opportunities to boost cooperation jointly with the United States. If you read our 2016 Defence White Paper carefully, you will see that it amounts to a radical transformation of the Australia-US defence relationship.

In all of the most critical areas of current and emerging military capabilities, our plan calls for closer interoperability with the US. The White Paper makes it clear that we see Japan as the vital third component in this relationship.

So closer and more operationally effective trilateral cooperation is urgently needed around maritime and air combat capability, missile defence, cyber offensive and defensive capability, space and special forces capabilities.

I understand that President Trump has agreed to visit Japan later this year. Can I suggest that a really valuable two hours of that visit would be for there to be a trilateral meeting between the Government leaders of Japan, the US and Australia. Perhaps Japan should think of inviting Malcolm Turnbull to visit at that time.

It would be a powerful statement of the three leaders of the great Asia-Pacific democracies to stand together in defence of the rules-based international order.