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     Mar 15, 2007
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The emerging axis of democracy
By Hisane Masaki

by the "professionalism" of Japanese troops.

The Japan-Australia security pact was signed about three weeks after US Vice President Dick Cheney made an Asia-Pacific tour late last month. Unlike his Asian tour three years ago, which took him to Japan, China and South Korea, Cheney this time visited only Japan and Australia, underscoring the particular importance Washington attaches to strengthened ties with Tokyo and


Washington has thrown its weight behind closer security ties between Tokyo and Canberra. With relations between the US and South Korea deteriorating in recent years, the administration of President George W Bush is seen by some pundits as shifting the focus of its security policy in the Asia-Pacific away from ties with Japan and South Korea and toward those with Japan and Australia.

Japan, the US and Australia inaugurated a three-way security dialogue of foreign ministers last March. By establishing a ''two plus two'' forum of foreign and defense ministers from Japan and Australia, similar to those each already has with the US, Tokyo and Canberra want to strengthen security cooperation among the three nations.

The nascent trilateral security dialogue among Japan, the US and Australia does not include defense ministers or other officials from their defense ministries. Since scheduling meetings of all the foreign and defense ministers from the three nations is difficult, Abe and Howard, apparently with prior consent of the US, agreed to set up trilateral talks of bureau-chief-level foreign and defense officials among the three nations.

The Japan-Australia declaration is also widely seen as part of efforts to implement a four-way "strategic dialogue" among Japan, the US and Australia plus India that Abe has proposed since taking the helm of the Japanese government, although this idea seems unlikely to come into fruition any time soon. Japan invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Japan last December, his first Tokyo trip since taking office, apparently in hopes of strengthening ties with the South Asian country as a counterbalance to the growing influence of China in Asia.

China's fears of containment
To be sure, both Tokyo and Canberra have taken pains to dismiss suggestions that strengthened security ties could strain their ties with China, saying that the just-signed security pact is not directed at that country. And the security pact is quite different in nature from the Japan-US and Australia-US alliances, which emphasize defense obligations. But Beijing will probably not take the Japanese and Australian assurances at face value.

Both Japan and Australia emphasized that the security pact inked on Tuesday was not directed specifically at China or any other countries in the region. "This declaration lifts the security aspects of our relationship more closely to the level of our economic and commercial ties," Howard said after signing the document. "Neither China nor any other country in the region should see this declaration as being antagonistic toward them."

Tokyo and Washington, increasingly concerned about China's rapid military buildup and modernization, have called for Beijing to make more transparent its military policy, including military spending, which has kept swelling at a double-digit pace in percentage terms for nearly two decades. Meanwhile, Beijing has been alarmed by strengthened security cooperation between Tokyo and Washington in recent years.

Japan and the United States signed a final pact on the realignment of US bases and forces on Japanese soil last May. Aimed at reducing strains on Japanese communities that host bases while maintaining the US presence in Japan, the pact will also further cement the bonds between the close allies through increased integration of their military operations and pave the way for Tokyo's greater involvement in US-led operations, not only in Asia but globally.

The move toward stronger security alliance between Japan and the US has highly alarmed China, especially since a peaceful settlement to tensions in the Taiwan Strait was included in a list of common strategic goals to be pursued by Tokyo and Washington under the new security arrangements. Beijing still regards Taiwan as a renegade province that must be reunified with the mainland, even by force if necessary.

There are also suspicions in China that the real US motive for the sweeping overhaul of its military's global posture might be what some call the "soft containment" of the rapidly ascending military and economic power. The Bush administration publicly denies any intention to pursue a containment policy toward China and claims its policy is to encourage China to be a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system.

Japan is Australia's largest trading partner, followed by China and the US. Australia is a major supplier of coal, iron ore, oil and natural gas, which together account for nearly 60% of its Japan-bound exports. With the world's largest uranium deposits, Australia is also an important country for Japan's civilian nuclear policy.

Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is yiu45535@nifty.com.

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