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Explaining the Japan–Australia security relationship: it’s complicated…

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International Affairs Blog, with Tomohiko Satake, 13 July, 2018

During the Cold War, Japan defined its security policy by the Yoshida Doctrine — maintaining a low profile security posture while relying on the United States for protection based on the US–Japan Security Treaty. There was little appetite within Japan’s government or military for military-to-military relationships with other regional states. Yet the past three decades have seen a steady diversification of Japanese security partnerships, including with South Korea, Australia and India as well as with some ASEAN and European countries. Notably, these relationships were not meant to replace the still-dominant security reliance on the US–Japan alliance, but instead were part of a strategy — carried out in tandem with the US — which saw the two states moving away from its strict bilateralism to what Michael J. Green calls ‘federated capabilities’.

The case of Japan and Australia — a ‘quasi-alliance’?

In our recent article for International Affairs, we looked specifically at this rapid diversification of Japanese security partnerships from the perspective of Japan–Australia security cooperation in both the bilateral and multilateral contexts, including the US and China. First of all, it was apparent that while some referred to Japan–Australia relations as ‘quasi-alliances’, they were not, in fact, alliances at all, but merely examples of what Thomas Wilkins called‘alignment’. While these groupings have systematically set about developing ‘alliance-like’ characteristics — such as military interoperability, strategic consultations and institutionalized intelligence-sharing — they have carefully avoided the primary ingredient of alliances: defence guarantees.

We asked why political leaders in Tokyo and Canberra went to the trouble of developing such complex security relationships — one need only look at the general security of information agreement (GSOMIA) and the acquisition and cross-servicing agreement (ACSA), for example — while simultaneously avoiding the primary benefit of a formal alliance commitment to each other? Neo-realist theory would have us believe that as authoritarian China rose in the region and expanded its military hard power capabilities across the maritime space and trade routes of both states, Australia and Japan would either balance Beijing’s ambitions or bandwagon behind them. However, the actual record is more complex and sees political leaders adopting elements of both strategies. At times, Australia and Japan developed very close ties and seemed on the verge of committing to the relationship — as when Prime Minister John Howard offered Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a security treaty in 2007 or when, in 2015, both Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Prime Minister Abe began promoting a submarine deal in strategic terms, labelling theirs a ‘special relationship’. Subsequently, however, caution seemed to reassert itself in both cases and domestic factors inside both countries halted further progress.

Drawing from Tomohiko Satake’s 2011 article on the origins of the trilateral relationship between the US, Japan and Australia and from John Hemmings’ doctoral research, we developed a model for explaining this apparent discrepancy. Faced, for example, with a triple security dilemma, that pits them between (1) a security dilemma with China, (2) an abandonment/entrapment dilemma with each other and (3) a quite separate abandonment/entrapment dilemma with their mutual ally, the United States, Japanese and Australian foreign policy elites simply cannot tell what the optimum policy choice is. What we found, through interviews and by analysing government policy documents, was how bureaucratic coalitions within Canberra or Tokyo would push for given policies, prioritizing one or another of these three drivers. This meant that in some cases the two would align more closely — such as when a pro-alliance group prioritizing the danger of abandonment was in control of the tools of foreign policy — only to pull back after new bureaucratic coalitions, which promoted policies that engage with China and emphasized the dangers of entrapment, took power. This was apparent, for example, after the 2008 election in Australia which saw Kevin Rudd replace John Howard as prime minister, as Australia unilaterally withdrew from the US–India–Japan–Australia Quadrilateral (QUAD) and warned against closer defence engagement with Japan.

What does this mean for the future?

This model explains both the specific pattern of Japan–Australia security ties as well as the historically atypical alignment policies that are rising across the region, in which states begin implementing multipronged strategies to pair balancing with engagement. We see these states building evermore institutionalized security relations, while continuing to closely monitor their relations with Beijing. In academia, this dual-approach has become known as ‘hedging’. As we look to the future, instability and threats to the rules-based order are discussed not only in terms of Chinese assertive behaviour, but also in terms of the Trump administration’s challenge to the liberal international order. Given these circumstances, we must also ask whether our model will see even more non-committal alignments — particularly between medium-sized regional states — or whether China will be able to successfully restrain states from forming balancing alliances. Examples of these alignment patterns are to be found in the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue, created in 2002; in the creation of an Australia–India–Japan trilateral in 2015; and in the revival of the QUAD in 2017.

One interesting implication of our research is that, while abandonment concerns regarding the US engagement in Asia significantly encouraged Tokyo to seek closer ties with India, India itself has been less motivated by abandonment issues. Instead, internal debates in Delhi are more concerned with the risk of becoming entrapped between the United States and a rising China. This, combined with a fear of provoking a security dilemma and India’s longstanding ‘non-alignment’ foreign policy approach, has compelled some factions inside the Indian Ministry of External Affairs to eschew strong commitment to the QUAD. As we can see, this ‘commitment dilemma’ explains why all of these groupings see an ebb and flow of defence institutionalization, despite the fact that all share concerns about China’s intentions and growing military capabilities.

Should the US–China rivalry intensify, we might expect to see bureaucratic coalitions inside all four countries debate the prioritization of alliance commitments versus the prioritization of their relationship with China. Much of this has a mercurial dynamic, meaning that if any player decreases its security commitment to the QUAD, one will see a reaction from the others. If the Trump administration cannot sustain strong and consistent commitment to regional security, one might see a worrying shift in balancing behaviours by other QUAD members, with some reaching out to Beijing. The future of the QUAD therefore not only depends on Chinese assertiveness, but also on the appearance of US resolve to the defence of its smaller allies and partners. No doubt, this debate is occurring now at the domestic level.

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