Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2022.11.08

Japan-Australian alliance is even more important in today's geopolitical environment

The two island nations have much to gain by improving ties, both militarily and economically

the japan times on October 14, 2022

International Politics/Diplomacy Australia

CANBERRA – Of all the nations that are important to Japan, Australia is one that stands out — and for some reason I had never visited its capital, Canberra.

My visit this week to the beautiful city of about 450,000, with its impeccable urban planning, made me think of the deepening relationship between our two nations. At the same time, the visit gave me an excellent opportunity to reflect on the strategic implications of the Japan-Australia relationship.

At Shinzo Abe’s state funeral last month, Australia held a special position. Unlike many other nations, Australia sent its incumbent prime minister and three former leaders to Tokyo — Anthony Albanese, John Howard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. In July, Abbott was awarded the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun at the Japanese ambassador’s residence. When a congratulatory pre-recorded video message from Abe was shown, those present were reportedly moved to tears.

That said, the Japan-Australia strategic relationship is by no means a creation of Abe. The bilateral ties are much more than personal. We have many reasons to strengthen the relations further. Nonetheless, history suggests that until very recently, even national security experts in both countries have not always accurately comprehended that Japan and Australia share such important strategic interests with each other.

The differences between Japan and Australia are obvious. Japan is an Asian country heavily influenced by Chinese culture. Australia, a member of the British Commonwealth, is culturally Western. It is natural that the two countries would have different strategic mindsets, and despite the good economic relations they had until the1930s, they have an unfortunate history that once saw them as enemies during the Pacific War.

Economically, the two countries are also very different. Japan is a small island nation with virtually no natural resources and destined to live on free trade. Australia, with its huge continent, is blessed with abundant natural resources. Even if the two countries are interdependent in terms of industrial technology and natural resources, this does not mean that their strategic interests automatically match. Simply put, economic interdependence and strategic alliance are two different things.

Nevertheless, there are also many strategic similarities between the two countries. For example, their shared strategic interests have grown dramatically in recent years. The two countries actually adopted similar national strategies after World War II, modifying their policies toward China in similar ways after 1972 and gradually came to have a mutually indispensable relationship in recent years.

After the Labor Party government normalized diplomatic ties with Beijing in December 1972, Australia adopted a bipartisan pro-China foreign policy. Even after the conservative coalition government of 1996 assumed power, Australia diplomatically maintained a balancing act between protecting its alliance with the United States and maintaining good relations with resource-hungry China.

However, anti-Chinese sentiment has grown in Australia in recent years and has worsened in the wake of the suppression of pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong and the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the Abbott administration, Australia has shifted its traditional, more considerate policy toward China. It is interesting to note that Japan’s policy toward China has followed a similar path.

What is even more intriguing, though, is that there seems to be growing voices in Australia calling for a review of its conventional foreign and national security policies. In Canberra, I heard pundits argue that the excessive emphasis on economic growth might have led to a neglect of its security needs.

Again, it should be noted that such discussions also exist in Japan. It was in fact the Abe administration that moved away from the so-called Yoshida Doctrine, a national strategy adopted under the administration of then-Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida in the wake of World War II that emphasized economic growth and only minimal rearmament.

The main reason why both Japan and Australia need a strategic reassessment is the reality that the “advantage of distance” has been lost in terms of security with China as the Asian giant’s military technology has dramatically improved. For Japan physical threats to the Senkakus or other islands have become apparent and routine. Even further afield in Australia, China’s potential threats have become very real due to its building of military fortifications on man-made islands in the South China Sea.

So like Japan, Australia can now be directly threatened and the South Pacific region can no longer be taken for granted as safe and peaceful haven. The days when Australia’s security was guaranteed because threats only really existed in Europe or the Middle East are over. In addition, there is now a possibility that even Australia, a Western nation, may not be able to count on sufficient military support from Europe or the United States in times of crisis. Such allies may also not be so willing to come to the aid of another nation unless it can show it is willing to fight and defend itself. Japan and Australia now seem to share such strategic dilemmas.

In Canberra, I tried to make the following point, an “alliance of island nations,” or an “island alliance,” is an effective way to maximize the national interests of island nations.

I noted a strategy for such maritime nations must be, (1) to prevent the emergence of a hegemonic power by balancing nearby continental powers, (2) to avoid excessive intervention in nearby continental affairs and (3) to prosper through a free-trade system by securing sea lines of communication. Historically, Japan has been successful with two “island alliances,” the Anglo-Japanese alliance before World War II and the postwar U.S.-Japan alliance.

That said, given China’s rapid military buildup, the alliance with the United States, in essence an “island nation” separated by oceans with a vast military, may no longer be sufficient. That is the reason why Japan needs to form alliances with such nations as Australia, the “second largest island nation in the world,” although Canberra may not identify its country as such.

I am not sure whether I got my point across in English during the visit, but I am confident that this is where Japan and Australia share strategic common interests.