Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.10.21

A Submarine Deal With Australia?

JBpress on October 17, 2014

Who among the silent majority of Japanese could have imagined this a decade ago? Recently in Tokyo, two defense ministers agreed to enhance military cooperation between the two nations. Japan and the U.S.? No, Japan and Australia actually. For ordinary Japanese, this may be another departure from the post-World War II narrow-minded "pacifist" mindset.

For those who do not follow the news in detail, the following is what happened. Japan's Defense Minister Akinori Eto and his visiting Australian counterpart David Johnston met in Tokyo on October 16 and agreed to advance bilateral military cooperation measures. The agreement was based on a joint statement made by their respective bosses in July.

Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Tony Abbott signed bilateral accords on July 8 and 9 in Canberra, including an agreement which stipulates that "Each Party shall ... make available to the other Party, defence equipment and technology necessary to implement joint research, development and production projects or projects for enhancing security and defence cooperation."

After meeting with Johnston, Eto stated that, "We discussed measures in a wide range of areas to strengthen bilateral defense partnership and to deepen our 'special strategic partnership,'" which was reaffirmed on July 8 in the joint statement as, "Based on common values and strategic interests including democracy, human rights, the rule of law, open markets and free trade."

The two defense ministers also agreed to explore ways to strengthen joint military exercises and to develop a multilateral partnership that includes Japan, Australia and the United States, which Eto said would lead to stability in northeast Asia. Johnston also asked for Japan's assistance on Australia's new submarine project, to which Eto replied that Japan would study ways of cooperating.

The times have really changed, haven't they? Until as recently as the early 1970's, the silent majority of Japanese considered Australia a country with "measures of racial segregation" and "anti-Japanese popular sentiment." Even now, tension exists between the two nations over issues such as whales and dolphins.

Despite all the above, Japan and Australia seem to be entering a new era in their bilateral relationship. This may remind the silent majority of Japanese of the geo-political reality now surrounding the two nations in the Western and Southern Pacific Ocean. This present geo-political reality includes the following:

- Australia is an Asia-Pacific power
- Australia is a maritime (not continental) power
- Japan, the United States and Australia are three major maritime powers in the Asia-Pacific
- The three powers have common interests in maintaining the maritime status-quo

Having said that, it has taken and probably will continue to take Australia a while to be fully convinced of the above reality. Just recently Australia had a pro-China prime minister who prioritized its relations with Beijing over those with Japan. Even now, some politicians in Australia warn that the submarine deal with Japan will only antagonize China. That is fair, because Australia is a democracy.

This could be said of Japan as well. According to a Kyodo opinion poll of late March, 66.8% of those surveyed were against the relaxing of Japan's arms export ban policies, although no similar major surveys have been conducted since. Many members of opposition parties may criticize such arms exports to Australia. That is fine, too, because Japan is also a democracy.

What is most significant may be the impact on the mindset of the silent majority of Japanese. Japan's possible export of submarines to Australia, together with the possible export of US-2 military rescue aircraft to India, may change the whole mindset of the silent majority of Japanese who long believed that the United States is the only military ally of Japan.

Japan's security alliance network may not always have to be bilateral. The United States may not and should not be the only ally of Japan. There is a great possibility that some day Japan will conclude another mutual security treaty with a nation such as Australia. That's what the silent majority of Japanese must also keep in mind in this world of instability and unpredictability.