ADELAIDE - During his recent visit to
Tokyo, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander
Downer raised the prospect of signing a security
pact with Japan in his discussion with Prime
Minister Junichiro Koizumi and and the
front-runner prime-ministerial candidate, Chief
Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe.
This is a
significant development in the countries'
bilateral history, marking a great transformation
in Australia's attitudes toward Japan. But it also
points to the changing geo-economic and
geopolitical regional landscapes, with China
rising and India emerging and both nations' desire
to adjust their foreign-policy orientations.
At a time when Japan perceives China as a
potential threat and
faces North Korean nuclear
brinkmanship, it seeks and supports a new level of
cooperation with like-minded states and their
leaders. Australia is one of them. While the aim
is noble, it could turn out to be a great juggling
act for Australian diplomacy to forge new
politico-security relations with Japan while
simultaneously strengthening economic and
political ties with rival China - an aim that the
government of Australian Prime Minister John
Howard seeks to pursue nevertheless.
Australia harbored great distrust of Japan
after World War II, and concerns about Japan's
future military designs lingered in the Australian
psyche until very recently. Despite Australians'
suspicion of Japan, particularly after Japanese
attacks on Australia and brutal treatment of
Australian prisoners of war, the two nations
managed to transform their prewar incipient
commercial links into strong postwar economic
relations just one decade after the end of the
war. Economic relations flourished so strongly
that Japan became Australia's largest trading
partner and has remained so for the past two
Parallel to these economic links,
contacts at the grassroots level in educational
and cultural fields also flourished, especially
after the two nations signed a treaty of
friendship and cooperation in 1976 whose 30th
anniversary is being celebrated this year in both
Japan and Australia.
It is perhaps because
of this huge amount of goodwill and trust
generated throughout the past five decades between
the two governments and their businesses along
with grassroots links that today most Australians
have little concern about Japanese prime ministers
visiting Yasukuni Shrine, where millions of war
dead, including war criminals, are honored.
Nor are they concerned about the Japanese
government's proposal to amend its war-renouncing
Article 9 of the constitution. It is not
surprising then that there was no negative comment
in the media or elsewhere in Australia when
Koizumi visited the shrine last Tuesday, or indeed
about Downer's proposal for a security agreement
Security relations between the
two were almost non-existent during the Cold War.
However, the end of that era brought some direct
contact at the defense level. Defense ministers
and other officials began to exchange visits in
the early 1990s. These became a regular feature
from the mid-1990s, leading to the first
political-military and military-military talks in
Tokyo in February 1996.
contact also began to happen after Japan enacted
the International Peace Cooperation Law in 1992,
enabling it to participate in United Nations
peacekeeping and humanitarian-relief activities.
Japanese military personnel and Australian forces
worked together in peacekeeping operations in such
countries as Cambodia and East Timor.
2003 memorandum of understanding between Japan and
Australia on defense exchanges brought defense
staff of the two sides even closer together. The
greatest transformation came when Australia
committed hundreds of troops to protect Japanese
Self-Defense Forces personnel deployed for
reconstruction in southern Iraq.
Committing troops to protect Japanese
personnel, Howard called Japan a "close regional
ally and partner" and emphasized the importance of
working alongside Japan to combat global
terrorism. This contact was of a different nature
than that through UN peacekeeping. Having
uniformed personnel working in direct contact in
life-and-death circumstances in a third country
required a much closer and more personal level of
contact between the two - cooperation shifting
from the comforts of the official boardroom to the
wretchedness of an actual war zone.
further development in the bilateral defense and
strategic relationship occurred in the early 2000s
through its triangulation with the United States,
the principal ally of both Australia and Japan.
The three national governments began official
moves to initiate their first formal dialogue on
issues of regional security in 2001. Several such
dialogues took place at the official level between
2002 and 2005. Because of the opaque nature of
these meetings, it has been hard to know the
content, except through media releases that are no
more than political rhetoric and grandstanding.
Despite concerns expressed by Beijing on
the trilateral process, which it construes as a
design to contain China, leaders of the three
nations decided to upgrade the process to
ministerial level in 2005 so that more direct
discussion of "political elements" could better
guide and inform their security discussions.
Responding to a question about the aims of
the trilateral framework, Downer claimed, "There
are no issues that we would foresee being off
limits in a discussion between allies."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has commented
that China could become a "negative force" in the
region. Consequently "all of us in the region,
particularly those of us who are long-standing
allies, have a joint responsibility and obligation
to try [to] produce conditions in which the rise
of China will be a positive force in international
politics, not a negative force".
undoubtedly China occupies strategic thinking of
many nations in the region and beyond, Australian
leaders have repeatedly said they were opposed to
a policy of containment of China. And the best way
forward is working constructively with China, they
argue. Australia's declared position on China is
obviously very different from those of two of its
principal economic and security partners, the US
So the question is why would
Australia pursue a security agreement with Japan,
even though the two have somewhat different view
on China, a power that matters?
Japan has been Australia's largest trading partner
and very often the relationship has been described
as "taken for granted". Furthermore, this year the
two countries are celebrating 30 years of deep
cultural engagement at official and popular levels
and both have agreed to a feasibility study for a
bilateral free-trade agreement.
but steady bilateral security ties since the early
1990s and through the trilateral dialogues since
the early 2000s have set the scene to take the
bilateral relationship to a new level. Downer's
initiative can be understood in this light.
Japan is an equally willing partner, even
though the initiative has come from the Australian
side. In fact, Abe for some time has proposed
Japan's close cooperation with major democracies
of the Asia-Pacific region comprising the US,
Australia and India. While it would take some
convincing New Delhi of such a proposal, Australia
is quick to jump on Japan's willingness to secure
closer ties with Asia-Pacific partners.
The nature of the proposed security pact
between the two is likely to be a low-key affair
in the beginning, a sort of arrangement that
Australia is also currently pursuing with
Indonesia. It could comprise some joint military
exercises for combating terrorism and
peacekeeping. Downer has clarified that
"aggressive military training" is off limits. In
Australia, a national-security committee is
examining the details of such a treaty.
However, it won't be an easy task for
Australia to upgrade its relations with Japan
through a security pact while simultaneously
strengthening its politico-economic relations with
China. Australia has never in the past juggled
with so many diplomatic balls. If Australia is
unable to keep one ball in the air while holding
two in its hands, it could spell a disaster for
its foreign policy.
Jain is professor and head of the Center for
Asian studies at the University of Adelaide in