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The Australia-Japan relationship: Worthy of more reflection

Our complicated relationship with China and the implications of President Trump for Australia have eclipsed thoughtful reflection on the Australia-Japan relationship.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian PM Malcom Turnbull in Sydney in January. (Photo: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian PM Malcom Turnbull in Sydney in January. (Photo: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)
Published 3 Oct 2017 

Australia’s ties with Japan constitute one of the world’s most well-rounded bilateral relationships. The past decade alone has witnessed the achievement of several major milestones. Of particular significance has been the landmark Joint Defence and Security Cooperation (JDSC) agreement in 2007 and the Japan-Australian Economic Partnership Agreement (JAEPA) in 2014. There has also been successive upgrading of the bilateral Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA) - the latest in January this year – that significantly enhance interoperability between the ADF and Japanese Self Defense Force.

These major economic and security-related upgrades signal the intent of both countries to further promote an already close partnership. All of this has been accompanied by heady talk of a potential security alliance between the two countries that flowed from the promulgation of a ‘Special Strategic Partnership’ in 2014, the same year the JAEPA was concluded.

Although diluted somewhat by the Turnbull Government’s rejection of the Soryu bid for a new-generation Australian submarine, talk of a possible formal alliance has never really gone away, particularly within defence and intelligence communities. While we may have passed the high point of the bromance between Abbott and Abe (who can forget the RM Williams photoshoot in the Pilbara?), today there is barely a crack of light between Canberra and Tokyo on security issues.

Moreover, both capitals have doubled down on shared normative commitments around democracy and human rights and the importance of liberal economic order in the face of ‘America First’ mercantilism. And the countries’ trade and investment relationship continues to power along, almost under the radar.

While from a security, political, and economic perspective, the bilateral relationship has gone from strength to strength in recent years, this receives far less airplay in Australia than it deserves. With a few notable exceptions, media coverage of our complicated relationship with China and the implications of President Trump for Australia eclipse thoughtful reflection on the significance of the Australia-Japan relationship. More to the point, the intrinsic dynamics of the Australia-Japan relationship remain under-analysed as are the factors that will shape its future course.

One explanation for this has been a tendency on both sides to take the bilateral relationship for granted. In many respects this is not surprising given the longevity of bilateral ties. Over the course of the past 60 years, exogenous factors and domestic priorities within each country have led to ‘peaks’ and ‘troughs’ in the management of bilateral relations. But the current confluence of conservative governments in both countries and the North Korea nuclear crisis have given the Australia-Japan relationship a huge fillip.

That said, a security alliance is almost certainly off the table; although receptive to the idea publicly, privately policy elites in both countries are wary of entrapment dangers arising from additional formal treaty commitments. Still, it’s highly likely that Canberra and Tokyo will continue to emulate most of the hallmarks of an alliance that have been growing since 2007.

Pinpointing the dynamics that make the Australia-Japan relationship tick is an important task. Complementing leading scholarship and think tank analysis, DFAT’s Australia-Japan Foundation (AJF) continues to provide critical opportunities for Australia and Japanese experts to delve deeply into the bilateral relationship.

With AJF and Japan Foundation support, earlier this month Western Sydney University (WSU) and Meiji University collaborated in the first of two workshops designed to reflect on the first ten years of the JDSC. Leading Australian and Japanese academics and current and former diplomats and policy makers participated in an all-day event. A special session was devoted to a Q&A with university students from the Sydney area to encourage, engage and inspire ‘future’ leaders.

Key themes discussed at the symposium included the big picture history and management of security ties, the promotion of shared values with a particular reference to democracy and how Australia and Japan can collaborate on regional hot topics through bolstering norms and agenda setting. There was a panel discussion devoted to future directions in bilateral relations with the view to identifying new areas of collaboration.  

The second symposium, to be held in Tokyo in December, will offer the opportunity for a wider discussion with Japanese academics, policymakers and government officials. Another focus of the symposium will be to include Southeast Asian views.  Leading academics from Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines will evaluate the JDSC and offer a regional perspective of the value and efficacy of the security agreement. Plans are underway to disseminate the outcomes widely in 2018.

Current regional tensions and the uneven policy course in Washington under the Trump administration underscore the importance for Australia to strengthen existing partnerships outside its formal alliance with the US. None surpasses the significance of the strategic partnership with Japan, which is likely to continue on a strong upwards trajectory in the years ahead.

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the two authors.

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