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Why AUKUS Will Not Become JAUKUS

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Why AUKUS Will Not Become JAUKUS

Despite recent talk, Japan is unlikely to join the security partnership anytime soon.

Why AUKUS Will Not Become JAUKUS

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, right, meets with U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister of Australia Anthony Albanese, left, at Point Loma naval base in San Diego, U.S., March 13, 2023, as part of AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the U.K., and the U.S.

Credit: Stefan Rousseau/Pool via AP

There has been considerable speculation as to whether Japan will join AUKUS, with some observers arguing that AUKUS should become JAUKUS. This will not happen in the foreseeable future.

What the AUKUS countries – Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – are finally beginning to consider is a potential and limited cooperation with Japan, rather than an expansion of the formal membership. Even limited cooperation in specific areas in Pillar 2 on advanced defense technologies will prove difficult to fully implement, with challenges on both sides. Pillar 1 on nuclear-powered submarines will not involve other countries given the highly sensitive nature of the project.

The possibility of engaging other allies and partners in Pillar 2 has been mooted from the outset. However, the existing AUKUS countries naturally needed to focus on laying the foundation for trilateral cooperation. Getting the Pillar 2 projects underway, including those on AI, quantum, cyber, and under-sea capabilities was not easy because the United Kingdom and Australia needed to make themselves compatible with U.S. export control and information security standards, most notably International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

While this process is not yet completed, the AUKUS defense ministers issued a joint statement on April 8, stating, “Recognizing Japan’s strengths and its close bilateral defense partnerships with all three countries we are considering cooperation with Japan on AUKUS Pillar II advanced capability projects.” Amid increasing talks about cooperation with Japan and other countries such as Canada and New Zealand, the statement named only Japan as a prospective partner in Pillar 2.

A couple of days after the AUKSU statement, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio arrived in Washington. The Japan-U.S. joint statement on April 10 was an almost verbatim repeat of the AUKUS document, saying, “Recognizing Japan’s strengths and the close bilateral defense partnerships with the AUKUS countries, AUKUS partners – Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – are considering cooperation with Japan on AUKUS Pillar II advanced capability projects.” This suggests that the timing of the AUKUS statement was closely coordinated with the Japan-U.S. diplomatic calendar. It is believed that, unsurprisingly, Washington took the lead in advancing this agenda, while Canberra remained somewhat more cautious.

The Japan-U.S. statement is notable in that the subject of the sentence that is considering cooperation between AUKUS and Japan is the AUKUS countries, not the U.S. and Japan. In his joint press conference with U.S. President Joe Biden, Kishida was cautious. He said that Japan had been consistent in supporting AUKUS as an initiative contributing to the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region and pointed out that Japan had been strengthening bilateral security and defense cooperation with all three AUKUS countries. However, he added that “nothing has been decided yet” regarding direct cooperation with AUKUS, showing an absence of enthusiasm for the prospect.

Despite some politicians talking about Japan possibly joining AUKUS, the Japanese government has actually never expressed a wish to cooperate with the group. As it now stands, it is the AUKUS countries, particularly the United States, that seem interested in cooperating with Japan, rather than the other way round, although Tokyo seems happy to consider cooperation with AUKUS, if asked.

The AUKUS countries now need to decide the areas of potential cooperation and the way in which they might work together with Japan (and other partners). Given the high level of trustworthiness and technical and legal compatibility needed to implement cooperation, it will not be an easy process and is likely to take time. Even Australia, which had long been part of the Five Eyes intelligence cooperation framework, found it difficult and frustrating to adjust its export control and other regulations to U.S. requirements, and in that respect Japan lags much farther behind.

Assuming that AUKUS and Japan both could one day overcome the challenges of materializing substantial cooperation, that will still not lead to Japan’s official membership or an expansion of AUKUS in the foreseeable future. This is a reflection of the nature of AUKUS. While there is no official link between AUKUS and the Five Eyes intelligence network, the fact that AUKUS countries constitute the core of Five Eyes is no coincidence. The level of trust needed to share the most secret and sensitive technologies cannot be achieved overnight. The U.S., the U.K., and Australia didn’t form a tight relationship by being in AUKUS together; rather, they had long been very close allies, and that is what enabled the three countries to establish AUKUS.

Moreover, many of the Pillar 2 projects are not entirely new but have origins in “The Technical Cooperation Program (TTCP),” a technology cooperation framework among the Five Eyes countries. That is why Canada and New Zealand are often mentioned as potential new members of AUKUS, despite the fact that Japan possesses more advanced technologies. Also, they are located closer to AUKUS countries than Japan is, which has implications for information security and export control.

It needs to be emphasized that AUKUS is only talking about “cooperation” and it only uses words such as “engage” and “collaboration” as well as “cooperation.” It has never used language such as “membership” or “expansion of AUKUS.” This clearly suggests that AUKUS is distinguishing between technical cooperation and formal membership.

What Tokyo needs to think through is whether and in what areas it wants to cooperate with AUKUS in light of Japan’s national interest and the cost of adjusting to meet the AUKUS standards. At the same time, AUKUS needs to figure out how it wants to engage Japan and other partners. It remains unclear to what extent AUKUS is prepared to change its fundamental nature to enable more engagement with other partners. Despite the burgeoning political rhetoric of cooperation between AUKUS and Japan, even a limited cooperation in specific areas will take time. A more precise discussion is needed.