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Tokyo-Canberra: Low-level hedging

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COMMENTS

19 February 2010 09:59

Australia's hedging against China has a dimension beyond the US alliance. Name it gently: J-A-P-A-N.

How to describe Australia's hedging? It is not grand enough to be called a strategy. It does not yet have the status or coherence of a policy. Yet it is much more than an inclination or intention. Call it low-level hedging. The little shrubs have been planted. The height or even design of the hedge awaits the sun or storms of future days. One more plant is to be put in place when Japan's Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada visits Australia this weekend.

As the Nikkei Daily reports from Tokyo, Japan and Australia are to sign an agreement so their two forces can provide food, fuel and logistical support to each other during peacekeeping operations, disaster-relief missions and other activities. It will be Japan's second Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement, after the one signed with the US in 1996. Described like this, the agreement is so non-threatening that even China will not be able to bluster too hard. 

The outline of the agreement was first apparent last year. As Alan Dupont commented then, this is a 'straight-forward and non-controversial deal which I don't imagine would face any political opposition in Australia or Japan'. The significance of the deal, beyond its stated purposes, is that it is a further link in an established military partnership. While Australia and Japan keep being nasty to each other over whales, their military embrace grows firmer and deeper.

It has been one of the big, if little-noted, Australian defence trends of the last ten years.

Track the growing warmth of this embrace over the decade by comparing the language in the Defence White Papers in 2000 and 2009. At the start of the decade, Australia had a long standing 'strategic dialogue' with Japan. By 2009, Japan was a 'critical strategic partner'. The shift in language described a shift in the facts. Australia and Japan now have a defence structure which has its own bilateral dynamics, as well as supporting the two alliances with the US.

In the 2000 White Paper, Australia and Japan shared a commitment to a strong an enduring US role in regional security. Each through its respective alliances would work hard to support US engagement. By 2009, this had become a more complex trilateral structure with several layers. Australia would work 'to develop practical defence cooperation with Japan', improving the interoperability of the defence forces both bilaterally and through the trilateral security dialogue with the US.

I've written before about the trilateral dialogue and its inadvertent christening by Australia as the Asian NATO. The importance of the trilateral process is not merely a more united approach to supporting the US. It tracks the growing strength of the Tokyo-Canberra element. That is signified by the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation Australia signed with Japan in Tokyo in March 2007.

In Australia's view, the agreement signifies the establishment of a bilateral defence relationship which is the closest Japan has with any country other than the US.

By the time Japan and Australia signed the Declaration in 2007, the document was the expression of a defence structure that was already in place. The agreement stated an existing reality when its first paragraph affirmed 'the strategic partnership between Australia and Japan.'

At the time, the Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, worried that security cooperation with Japan should take no further steps towards a full defence pact, for fear of offending China. The momentum, though, continues. The low level hedge is being tended.

Photo by Flickr user ortizmj12, used under a Creative Commons license.

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