Features | Economy | Politics

Japan-Australia Ties Key to Regional Stability

With the strategic landscape of the Asia-Pacific changing, Australia and Japan look to deepen their relationship.

J. Berkshire Miller

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.

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The Foreign and Defense meetings are significant because it is the first time Australia has formalized official meetings with another country encompassing both ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense. Before this pact, Japan had only entered into such a trusted mechanism with the United States.  At the latest set of meetings, the two agreed to enhance their partnership on a range of Asia-Pacific security issues such as stability on the Korean peninsula and a rules-based resolution to the South China Sea territorial dispute. While being careful not to single out China, the statement endorsed a stronger push towards trilateral defense cooperation with the U.S. to improve interoperability and maritime security. Despite this, Australia shrewdly distanced itself from the territorial dispute in the East China Sea over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands as it does not want to fray ties with Beijing, which is already upset with Canberra’s decision to allow U.S. marines to be stationed in its northern port of Darwin.

Japan and Australia– bolstered by their alliance with the United States – share common interests in maintaining an equilibrium of stability and security in Asia. Both countries have been active in promoting the non-proliferation regime through their work together on the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) which is a joint mechanism born out of the last Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in May 2010.  Under Australian-Japanese leadership, the NPDI focuses on negotiating the moribund text for a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty, stronger nuclear safeguards, increased transparency on disarmament reporting, and support for the implementation of nuclear weapons-free zones. It is symbolically important to have this Initiative based out of the Asia-Pacific, because it is this region that has the most to gain – or lose – from controlling nuclear proliferation.

The threat of the spread of weapons of mass destruction in Asia is underscored by a truculent regime in North Korea. Japan continues to have an important stake in the future of the North’s nuclear weapons program despite the stalled Six Party Talks. Geographic proximity and history have magnified Pyongyang’s intransigence for Japan. However, as North Korea continues to enhance its ballistic missile technology – notwithstanding its embarrassing failed rocket launch earlier this year – Canberra will also need to be diligent at combatting the threat. The trajectory of the failed test in April 2012 was directed at Southeast Asia which prompted Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr to remark that “North Korean nuclear and long-range missile plans represent a real and credible threat to the security of the region and to Australia.”

Japan-Australia security cooperation is not merely reactive however. The two have signed an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement which will allow both countries to work together on international peace building operations as well as humanitarian missions. For example, the two worked together to deploy assistance to the victims of the Indonesian tsunami in 2003. The current Agreement will allow Australian planes to airlift Japanese task force members to disaster areas.

The diplomatic relationship between Tokyo and Canberra is also progressing. Australia has been a vocal proponent of Japan acquiring a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and has consistently supported its campaigns for non-permanent seats. Despite roadblocks, it will be important for the two to use some of this diplomatic capital in order to enhance cooperation in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has come perilously close to losing his grip on power due to his economic reforms highlighted by a proposed doubling of the domestic consumption tax and a swing-back policy aimed at getting Japan back to the table at the TPP.

The changes are politically difficult but widely seen as necessary for Tokyo to regain a competitive advantage in the Asia-Pacific. Australia is keenly observing Japan as it goes through this economic metamorphosis. The current Economic Partnership Agreement or Free Trade Agreement being negotiated between Japan and Australia has the potential to significantly benefit both economies but will depend on reforms in both countries and uneasy policy choices.

Australia and Japan represent the bookends of the Asia-Pacific region and are geographically – and ideologically – two of the most important pillars of American policy for the region. The economic weight of the two was nearly $7.3 trillion in 2011 which is roughly equal to that of China and is more than India, Russia, South Korea, and ASEAN combined.  This is a relationship that cannot be neglected. The strategic imperative of keeping Tokyo and Canberra together – and in fact bolstering relations – has never been more important.