During the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan held in the Japanese capital this past summer, the foreign ministers of Japan and Australia met on the sidelines to discuss the importance of enhanced bilateral relations in uncertain times. During the meeting, both sides discussed future collaboration on issues ranging from Afghanistan’s development to Burma’s diplomatic thaw with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). On the multilateral side, Australia and Japan continue to work together at regional cooperation frameworks such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum.
Australia and Japan have several common interests but their relationship for the past several decades has been focused almost entirely on economics. There is good reason for this – as Japan and Australia are two of largest and most dynamic economies in the region and also share common democratic and free market values. Bilateral trade amounts to nearly $70 billion annually with a heavy trade imbalance favoring Australian exports to Japan which exceeded $50 billion in 2011. Japan continues to be heavily reliant on Australia’s booming mining sectors such as coal, iron and copper to satiate its manufacturing needs. Meanwhile, Canberra imports motor vehicles, electronics and technological parts from Japan but import growth has largely flat lined due to increased competition from South Korea and China.
Australia has been keen to recognize the dynamism of its backyard. Unfortunately, as result of changing priorities, engagement with Japan has played second fiddle of late to emerging partnerships with Seoul and Beijing. This can no longer be the case. The days when geopolitics and economics were handled separately are a distant memory. Julia Gillard’s administration seems to have recognized this foreign policy gap and has maneuvered its diplomatic compass towards engagement with China while shoring up a strategic foundation with regional allies such as the US, Japan, South Korea and Thailand.
Within the past five years, Japan-Australia relations have evolved significantly from the 1970s-80′s which were dominated by trade officials and business exchanges. In 2006, Tokyo and Canberra bolstered their partnership through the signing of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and have since maintained momentum through frequent exchanges, symposiums and meetings on security, defense and trade issues. The security side of the relationship has dramatically increased as Asia’s landscape changes and brings new challenges to both countries. Japan and Tokyo have held four Joint Foreign and Defense Ministerial Consultations (2+2) meetings since this pact – with the most recent summit taking place earlier this month.