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Will Australia and Japan Move Beyond the ‘Quasi-Alliance’?

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Will Australia and Japan Move Beyond the ‘Quasi-Alliance’?

The Russia-Ukraine War has only accelerated the deepening defense ties between Canberra and Tokyo. Will the two countries consider a formal alliance?

Will Australia and Japan Move Beyond the ‘Quasi-Alliance’?

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio takes part in a teleconference signing ceremony for the Japan-Australia Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) along with Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Jan. 6, 2022.

Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

The Australia-Japan relationship, especially bilateral security and defense ties, has reached “new heights” this year. On January 6, the Australia-Japan “Reciprocal Access Agreement” (RAA) was signed by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The RAA aims to facilitate reciprocal access and cooperation between the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and the Australian Defense Forces (ADF) by defining the status of the visiting force.

Previously, Canberra has hesitated over RAA negotiations with Tokyo, because of the existence of the death penalty system in Japan, which was a main concern of the Australian side. Records of discussion on the RAA show that the Australian side eventually prioritized the bilateral security partnership and conceded to the application of Japan’s criminal justice system to ADF troops on Japanese soil on a case-by-case basis.

As observed by Thomas Wilkins, the RAA is not a military alliance or a formal defense pact as mistakenly dubbed by some observers. Legally, the critical parts of the RAA are mundane: providing exemptions to visa and tax requirements for each visiting force, as well as granting permission for visiting force members to carry weapons and ammunition in line with their duties. But the bottom line is that the agreement “further reduces barriers” to practical defense cooperation between the SDF and the ADF, while building upon previous security declaration and arrangements, such as the “Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation” (JDSC), the “Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement” (ACSA), and the “Information Security Agreement” (ISA).

Regarding the RAA, Japanese media reported that the Australia-Japan relationship had been upgraded to a level of “quasi-alliance” – not a formal alliance but a de facto shadow alliance for a mutual security partnership. Nikkei Asia, for instance, argued that the RAA would pave the way for further bilateral security cooperation and joint drills in the Indo-Pacific, saying that Tokyo and Canberra had strengthened their “quasi-alliance” with an “eye on China.” Japan Times also referred to the “quasi-alliance” as well as growing tensions over the Taiwan Strait in its reporting on the agreement.

Although the Japanese government has not described Australia-Japan relations as “quasi-alliance” in official documents, Japanese lawmakers have mentioned phrases such as “quasi-alliance” or “quasi-ally” during deliberations at the National Diet. During a meeting of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense in the Upper House on April 10, 2007, Takano Hiroshi of Komeito asked then-Foreign Minister Aso Taro if Australia-Japan relations could be regarded as quasi-alliance or not. In response, Aso answered that “quasi-alliance” would be a proper phrase to describe the bilateral relationship. This was the first time for the Japanese government to recognize the Australia-Japan quasi-alliance at Diet deliberations. Since then, Japanese politicians have used the term “quasi-alliance” in describing the relationship.

In a question to then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo regarding the right of collective self-defense during a Budget Committee meeting in the Upper House on July 15, 2014, Matsuzawa Shigefumi of Your Party stated that Australia had already been a “quasi-ally’ of Japan. In a Committee on Foreign Affairs meeting in the Lower House of April 1, 2016, Nagashima Akihisa of the Democratic Party of Japan called Australia-Japan relations a “quasi-alliance” in his question to then-Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio. Kishida replied that Japan should strengthen its ties and communication with Australia in the field of security. Thus, Japanese lawmakers of both ruling and opposition parties have considered Australia as Japan’s “quasi-ally” despite the lack of a formal defense pact.

On the other hand, remarks on the quasi-alliance by Japanese officials and politicians have been occasionally reported in Australia. On October 26, 2014, the Sydney Morning Herald referred to statements by Japanese officials who called Australia a “quasi-ally” and emphasized the development of bilateral defense ties, including the Australia-Japan Defense Cooperation Office established in April of the year. Academics in Australia, such as H. D. P. Envall, pointed out that Japanese media had frequently used the phrase “quasi-alliance” to describe and report on Australia-Japan relations.

Like Japan, the Australian government has not used the term in its official government documents either. However, it was reported that Australian Defense Minister Christopher Pyne visited then-Japanese Defense Minister Iwaya Takeshi on January 23, 2019, and stated that both countries should strengthen the “special strategic partnership,” calling Japan a “quasi-ally” of Australia. In an interview with the author on June 7, 2019 in Tokyo, former Australian Ambassador to Japan Bruce Miller said that although both Australia and Japan have not officially expressed such a status, the “quasi-alliance” is a case of putting “action before words” (fugen jikko).

Notably, the Australia-Japan quasi-alliance has been strengthened by the outbreak of the 2022 Ukraine crisis. Both Japan and Australia have firmly opposed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. In the face of the illegal use of force by Russia, both Tokyo and Canberra immediately slapped economic sanctions on Russia. The adverse impact of the Russia-Ukraine War on the energy markets of Japan and Australia has been reported, yet the Australia-Japan quasi-alliance decided to impose additional sanctions against Russian entities. The prolonged conflict between Ukraine and Russia has negatively influenced Japan’s energy security as shortage of oil and gas, but it has been observed that Australia could provide more liquified natural gas (LNG) with Japan in place of Russia.

Alongside its defense ties with Australia, Japan has a full-fledged treaty alliance with the United States. Some Japanese specialists, especially Akimoto Chiaki, director of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Japan, have also insisted on the strategic significance of a new type of the Japan-U.K. alliance. The existence of the Japan-U.S. military alliance, the Australia-Japan quasi-alliance, and the possible new type Anglo-Japanese alliance have made security analysts and strategists consider the possibility of Japan’s entry into the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) trilateral security alignment, forming so-called “JAUKUS.” Washington and Tokyo, however, have both denied that Japan was invited to join the defense arrangement.

The Australia-Japan quasi-alliance has been gradually developed, mutually recognized, and recently activated. Now it could possibly evolve into a new multilateral security alignment in the Indo-Pacific era. The JAUKUS option might sound unrealistic given Japan’s constitutional limitations and the lack of formal military forces. After all, these same factors hampered the possibility of “JANZUS,” an idea for multilateral defense cooperation between Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States during the Cold War era. Having stated that, the international security environment and Japan’s security strategy have been considerably transformed in the post-Cold War world, and the 2015 Peace and Security Legislation legalizes exercise of the right to collective self-defense to protect a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan, including Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, in the event of a survival threatening situation.

Regardless of the feasibility of a formal bilateral defense pact or the JAUKUS option, the Japan-Australia quasi-alliance should be reliable and functional in the event of a variety of emergencies and will play its role for the maintenance of international peace and security.