Japan-Australia Security Cooperation: Emerging Challenges & Opportunities

By Tomohiko Satake —

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop of Australia join hands with former secretary of state John Kerry in Vientiane, Laos following a trilateral meeting in July 2016. Source: Wikimedia, U.S. Government Work.

Since the end of the Cold War, many Asian countries have sought to diversify their security partnerships and hedge against regional risks and uncertainties. There is no more successful example than Japan-Australia security cooperation. Originally launched from low-key information exchanges and mutual visits between defense officials, the relationship has developed into what some Japanese policymakers now describe as a “quasi-alliance.”

While relations between Japan and Australia during the Cold War mostly involved economic cooperation, they also participated in some security exchanges, such as information sharing and military training, especially after the mid-1970s. However, such collaboration was limited in scope and mostly facilitated by the United States, rather than through any direct initiative between the two countries.

Indeed, there was an atmosphere inside the Japan Defense Agency at the time that Tokyo should not pursue defense cooperation with countries other than the United States. It was not until the end of the Cold War that Japan and Australia began regular dialogues between their foreign and defense agencies.

In the 2000s, symbolically important Japan-Australia defense exchanges evolved into more practical cooperation. Direct engagement between their two militaries occurred in bilateral operations, and often trilateral operations involving the United States, at both regional and global levels. To some extent, this activity was stimulated by geostrategic concerns, including the rise of China and the changing power balance in the region. As a result, the two countries decided to establish a Trilateral Strategic Dialogue with the United States and began to institutionalize their bilateral defense and security relationships.

Close security links between Australia and Japan were further upgraded by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and Australian prime minister Tony Abbott. Under the banner of a “special strategic partnership,” the two conservative leaders pushed for cooperation on Australia’s future submarine project. They also facilitated joint operations and exercises between the JSDF and the ADF.

Yet, the April 2016 decision by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government not to choose Japan as its partner for Australia’s next submarine poured cold water on warming relations between the two countries. More recently, the victory of Donald Trump, as well as his nationalistic and isolationist remarks during the election campaign, have raised serious concerns about the credibility of the U.S. commitment to Asian allies like Japan and Australia. Indeed, some differences have already emerged between Tokyo and Canberra in terms of their sense of distance from President Trump, especially after Trump’s disastrous phone call conversation with Turnbull on February 2017.

At the same time, the new U.S. administration provides opportunities for defense and security cooperation between Japan and Australia, in which the United States could be involved trilaterally. In particular, President Trump’s demand for increased contributions from regional allies could elicit a more active defense and security posture from both Japan and Australia.

In this context, Japan and Australia should take full advantage of the new opportunities while also minimizing the risks. Four initiatives are particularly critical.

First, Japan and Australia should develop a new common strategy that can respond to a rapidly changing security environment. The arrival of a new U.S. administration, as well as China’s growing maritime strength and North Korea’s increasing provocations, have forced Tokyo and Canberra to revise their defense policies. Given these changes, both countries should review their Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation, announced in March 2007, and consider a new statement reflecting those changes.

Second, Japan and Australia need to encourage a continued U.S. commitment to the liberal international order, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, including its military presence and partnerships, free trade, and regional institutions. Tokyo and Canberra must review and increase their bilateral defense cooperation with the United States both regionally and globally.

Third, Tokyo should continue and accelerate its defense reforms, and implement the new security legislation. These security reforms have already provided more opportunities for close security cooperation within the U.S.-Japan alliance as well as with Australia. The Australian government should encourage Japan’s continued efforts and, if necessary, support their legal, institutional, and operational development in the context of their growing bilateral partnership.

Finally, Japan and Australia should step up their cooperation in regional defense engagement across the Indo-Pacific, especially with the ASEAN countries. They should establish a joint strategy toward Southeast Asia, just as they managed to do for their cooperation in the South Pacific. This would not only strengthen regional capacity and resilience against any type of threat, but also improve intra-regional partnerships. Tokyo and Canberra should be the center of a network of regional security cooperation.

There are also a number of other specific areas in which the two countries can further enhance their collective efforts with the United States, such as military training, exercises, and interoperability; information and intelligence sharing; missile defense; and cyber security.

These steps could enhance bilateral and trilateral security cooperation between Japan, Australia, and the United States, which is essential to maintain a liberal, rules-based, and inclusive regional order.

Dr. Tomohiko Satake is senior research fellow in defense policy division at the National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo. In 2017, he was a Visiting Scholar with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Dr. Satake’s essay is part of CSIS’s Strategic Japan Working Paper Series featuring Japanese scholars addressing pressing issues in Japanese foreign and economic policy.


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