Should we rush to smooth Japan's ruffled feathers?

Should we rush to smooth Japan's ruffled feathers?

Since the Turnbull government's announcement that Australia would build new submarines in cooperation with France, defence and foreign affairs commentators have insisted that we must rush to smooth Japan's ruffled feathers.

Columnist Greg Sheridan warned that "influential Japanese are even starting to publicly question Australia's reliability as a strategic partner". Paul Dibb, among others, assessed that "Beijing must be rubbing its hands with glee that we are not buying submarines from its adversary Japan". Peter Jennings has suggested Malcolm Turnbull personally fly to Tokyo, "with an agenda for closer defence cooperation tucked under his arm for quick agreement".

The time has come to replace the ageing Collins class submarines

The time has come to replace the ageing Collins class submarinesCredit:Department of Defence

Before starting pre-flight checks on the Prime Minister's aircraft, we should take a moment to think this through. There is absolutely no evidence to support the contention that China's opposition influenced either the Competitive Evaluation Process or the ultimate decision of the National Security Committee of Cabinet. There are rumours circulating that this was a factor, but these rumours don't represent the reality that technical and domestic political factors were decisive. However, this gossip is now being used to bolster the argument that Canberra must urgently enhance its strategic ties with Tokyo.

Many pundits say that stronger defence cooperation with Japan is unquestionably in Australia's interest. Their argument is valid, but hardly water-tight. They argue that in a time of relative American decline and a rising, aggressive China, it makes sense for US allies to cooperate more closely as a hedging strategy. This will share the costs of dealing with Chinese aggression and encourage America to stay involved in the region. In the best case it will convince China to stop misbehaving, but in the worst case it will better prepare the US and its allies to contain, or fight, the People's Republic of China.


Because of long-standing Sino-Japanese animosity over history and territorial disputes, Australia's ever-deepening defence cooperation with Japan - either in a bilateral setting, or trilaterally with the US -is seen in Beijing as having an "anti-China" character. Advocates of stronger Canberra-Tokyo ties have previously been careful to downplay the prospects of a formal alliance, but they are less reticent today.

In 2014, one wrote: "The only people talking about alliances - a formal treaty commitment to act in each other's defence -are those who apparently don't want them". Now, two years later, there is talk that: "In spirit if not in the treaty itself… [Japan] could replace the NZ in ANZUS" (the US suspended its alliance commitment to New Zealand in 1986). However, it is not clear whether ordinary Australians support this idea: more than two-thirds say they would prefer to stay out of fight between Japan and China, even if the US requested our participation.

Worryingly, enthusiasm for an Australia-Japan alignment usually overlooks such a strategy's risks, or fails to examine the fundamental assumptions behind it.

One risk is that it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: Beijing sees anti-China coalitions forming, feels threatened, and develops additional military capabilities. Fearing the domestic prestige and face of Communist Party rule to be under threat, Chinese leaders may pursue aggressive policies in the South China Sea in order to demonstrate strength at home. Quickly, a tit-for-tat cycle of competition can emerge. If this cycle continues unchecked, it will end in conflict. We shouldn't sell ourselves short – Australia's disposition will affect China's outlook.

The key assumption of the pro-Japan strategy is the belief that America will maintain its post-WWII role in Asia: upholding norms (supposedly universal codes of behaviour), and defending allies. But America's timidity seems to have increased along with China's aggressiveness. Unlike Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union, Washington must manage Chinese misbehaviour while protecting its own interest in maintaining the bilateral relationship with Beijing. Given Donald Trump's recent successes, there is no guarantee that the next US President will be inclined to support Washington's allies. Even if Hillary Clinton wins in November, there will be powerful structural incentives for the next US President to avoid actions that pose risk to the US-China relationship.

While some claim a pro-Japan strategy contains only strategic benefits, we shouldn't dismiss the obvious risks. Turnbull would be wise to disregard any advice to quickly intensify Australia-Japan defence ties as some sort of consolation prize for Tokyo's hopes being sunk in the submarine contest. Despite the impatience of some analysts, there is no need to rush this important decision. If Chinese aggression continues, and if American reliability improves, then an Australia-Japan alignment or alliance can be reconsidered in the future.

We must be realistic about the challenges posed by China's behaviour, particularly in the South China Sea. We should forthrightly tell Beijing that continued aggression could, eventually, result in the formation of anti-China alliance. But we should not be eager to reach this outcome. For now, closer defence ties between Japan and Australia are likely to worsen, not improve, security in Asia.

Iain Henry is a PhD candidate at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the Australian National University's Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. He researches US alliances in Asia.

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