Australian alliance with Japan? Not any time soon
Professor Hugh White, head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU.
In the latest Centre of Gravity paper published by the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, Hugh White has once again stirred the pot with a controversial take on Australia's engagement in Asia.
This time White has argued that Australia should ''push the pause button on the alliance with Japan'', and question whether we should ''resolutely defend the old US-led order, refusing any accommodation of China's ambitions''.
But White paints the picture in overly stark terms, overlooking the nuance, for dramatic effect. Pundits ask in response: ''What alliance? There is no such thing under consideration.'' Japanese policy insiders dismiss talk of an alliance as unwarranted and constitutionally implausible in the foreseeable future.
Besides which, Japan's constitution precludes an alliance being forged with any country other than the United States. Any deviation would require a virtually unachievable level of political unity in support of a drastic change.
This is not on the horizon, even with a right-wing prime minister emerging on Japan's political stage. Similarly, Australian policymakers express surprise at the notion of the bilateral relationship being portrayed in terms of an alliance, as it is far from being or becoming so.
To date, as White acknowledges, only modest bilateral arrangements have been agreed upon and initiatives under consideration represent modest steps towards increased security co-operation. This is not unnatural, given the fact that Australia has collaborated with Japanese forces on international operations in Cambodia, Iraq and Aceh, as well as in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
What is more, there remain considerable constraints on the relationship expanding much further, because of Japan's constitutional provisions and policy priority clashes, including over whaling in the Southern Ocean.
Painting the bilateral relationship in terms of an alliance allows White to leap to question the circumstances in which Australia would go to war in support of Japan and vice versa. But in using these questionable points of reference, the spectrum of diplomacy and choices short of war are implicitly dismissed as inconsequential.
But they are consequential. Steps aimed at avoiding escalation before the temperature rises too far are important. Messages of concern to belligerent states are significant and have an effect.
Overlooking such steps underplays the significance of the constructive bilateral relationship emerging between Australia and Japan and how it contributes to regional stability and security.
Sure, this message is aimed at China. But it is aimed also at all regional powers that would seek to bolster their claims over contested places through unilateral assertions. As it happens, for the past three years China has been the most assertive and pushy power in relation to contested areas. But all stakeholders warrant being reminded of the merits of referring matters to the International Court of Justice rather than have recourse to force of arms.
White asks hypothetically if Australia were Japan's ally would the country go to war with China to support Japan over the Senkaku Islands.
The question is premised on an implausible scenario. Australia, which is not even close to contemplating an alliance with Japan, would be working assiduously to avoid a conflict erupting in the first place and, if it did eventuate, would avoid taking sides over a demonstrably questionable legal claim of entitlement.
White further claims that we should give top priority to building policy aimed at avoiding the kind of predicament in which we face a China intent on regional hegemony. But the evidence is growing that we are already there.
Even most Association of South-East Asian Nations states now realise that reinforcing security ties with the US is a necessary hedge to encourage China to exercise restraint and to discourage an escalation of tensions as it unilaterally asserts its claims in contested areas.
The countries of ASEAN, like Japan and Australia, are eager to discourage China from regional hegemonic aspirations and to encourage China to continue to operate in accordance with United Nations principles and the post-World War II order. They see that the most practical way to encourage Chinese restraint is to make clear that they want a continued strong US presence and they do not want to be bullied into submission.
Interestingly, Japan is becoming an indispensable and accepted member of an ASEAN-led counterbalancing strategy against China in south-east Asia. Regional security is moving towards networked alliances and partnerships, rather than the traditional, bilateral hub and spokes. To be clear, no alliance with Japan is in prospect. But an incremental increase in collaboration for mutual benefit can be expected.
The recent Asialink report aptly recommends: ''Give the ASEAN region a central place in the Australian international narrative, as a natural partner and neighbour - a collaborative relationship compatible with Australia's strategic objectives as a US ally.'' Japan is seeking to do this as well. This is a good thing.
John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.