If, as expected, Australia and Japan sign a defence equipment agreement today, this should be seen as a normal and welcome development in the bilateral relationship (as ASPI's Peter Jennings notes) and certainly should not lead Australia to seek some kind of 'counterbalancing' reaction in Australia-China security relations. That would definitely be putting the cart (security agreements) before the horse (strategic trust) at a time when China's increasingly coercive maritime behaviour in the East and South China Seas is undermining that very trust in China's strategic intentions and security actions.
Why is this normal?
- Japan recently signed a similar agreement with its first ever Western alliance partner, Great Britain, and is developing closer defence trade ties with France, among others. Australia is joining the lengthening queue.
- This agreement would be the third functional agreement between Japan and Australia under the 2007 Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation following on from the 2010 cross-servicing agreement and the 2012 information-sharing one. Regional reaction to both was appropriately muted.
- Japan and Australia face similar fiscal and defence industry problems that could be partially addressed by such an agreement.
Why should there be no connected Australia-China 'deliverable'?
- Canberra did not feel the need to react to the two earlier functional agreements under the 2007 Joint Declaration or the Declaration itself with immediate, Australian-initiated institutional advances in Australia-China security relations.
- Chinese officials consistently argue in regional fora that enhanced strategic trust must come before enhanced regional security cooperation; the confidence must come before the confidence-building measure. This is a prudent approach to foreign and security policy which the recent Australia-Japan security agreements reinforce, as does the comparative lack of such agreements between Australia and China.
- If Australia's promotion of Australia-Japan and Australia-China security agreements and arrangements are based upon some type of balancing idea, Australia would place itself in the middle of the Japan-China strategic rivalry. This extraordinary new approach would be against Australian interests and against the natural and normal tendencies of our very different relationships with both of these major powers.