Chinese Challenge: Australia’s Japan Choice

China’s steady economic growth has been accompanied by growing assertiveness over control of resources and territory in the East China Sea and the South China Sea that unnerves neighbors. Most Asian nations do not see any option other than a closely entwined future with China and criticize Beijing with caution. Australia under conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in advancing defense cooperation with Japan, is bucking that trend, a stance that poses long-term strategic challenges, explains Evelyn Goh of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University. China is, by far, the lead trade partner for Australia and Japan. China denounces any attempt at containment of its ambitions. Yet if Japan and Australia, both US allies, pursue ongoing defense partnerships, that marks a sweeping line through the Pacific Ocean. US support would still be required in dealing with Chinese challenges but Asian nations increasingly question US commitment. The unease contributes to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to end Japan’s constitutional restraints on deployment of armed forces, thus contributing to a spiraling cycle of insecurity. – YaleGlobal

Chinese Challenge: Australia’s Japan Choice

Australia may be ignoring long-term strategy by supporting Japan against top trade partner – China
Evelyn Goh
Thursday, July 17, 2014

Taking sides: Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott welcomes Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe in Canberra (top); Chinese President Xi Jinping with Abbott, not thrilled

CANBERRA: Since taking office in 2012, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been preparing for more decisive revisions to the constitutional constraints on Japan’s use of armed forces. He has also tirelessly sought international support against China’s assertiveness in maritime East Asia. He topped off 18 months of shuttle diplomacy across Southeast Asia with a landmark weeklong visit to Australia.

The two countries signed a defense research agreement that many expect will facilitate the transfer of Japanese submarine technology to Australia.

The defense agreement was made possible by Abe’s cabinet easing the ban on Japanese arms exports in April. Australia might now join the US and UK in having exceptional access to joint weapons-development programs with Japan. Hot on the heels of the cabinet approving Abe’s reinterpretation of the constitution to allow Japan’s armed forces to engage in “collective self-defense” – coming to the aid of allies under attack from a common enemy – the agreement raises the specter of Australia seeking a quasi-alliance with Japan. Initially to support the US “rebalance” to Asia, this would essentially serve to contain China.

The Abbott government’s warm embrace of Abe’s economic and security overtures spotlights three challenges facing every East Asian country in the current strategic transition:

First, how can they reap the maximum benefits from China’s growth, while constraining its assertiveness? How to find that elusive balance between supporting US preponderance and deterrence, while facilitating China’s peaceful accommodation into the regional order?

Japan, South Korea and many Southeast Asian states have wrestled with these questions since China’s economic reforms took off in the late 1980s, but Australia comes relatively late to this central strategic dilemma. More than any other American ally in the region, Australia has cleaved to a strategic identity – forged through participation in every major US conflict since 1914 – that prioritizes the alliance and affinity with the United States. Depite burgeoning economic ties, Canberra still evinces a clear sense of its geographical and political distance from Asia and China.

Some in Australia also believe that they are not necessarily giving hostage to China through these economic ties: Australian corporations still have relatively few non-mobile assets invested in China, and alternative markets exist for Australia’s primary exports. For instance, in the first four to five months of this year, Australia provided 55 percent of China’s iron ore imports and 61 percent of Japan’s, much of it originating from Pilbara region in Western Australia which the two prime ministers visited. Three quarters of Western Australia’s liquefied natural gas exports still go to Japan.

Furthermore, anxious to distinguish itself from its predecessor’s perceived overly “pro-China” stance, the Abbott coalition government may have swung to the other extreme. It openly coordinated with Japan and the US to criticize China’s maritime assertiveness at June’s Shangri-La defense ministers’ dialogue in Singapore, and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop pointedly asserted last week that Australia will “stand up to China to defend peace, liberal values and the rule of law.” This entailed speaking out against Chinese actions, including her public criticism of China’s 2013 declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over parts of the East China Sea, criticism which she reportedly suggested generated no consequences for Australia’s economic ties with China.

Mixed bag: China is Australia's top trade partner, imports and exports, good sand services(Data: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)
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There is a world of difference between being forthright with China and creating the basis for a counter-veiling coalition with Japan to contain China. “Going all the way” with Japan, as Abe urged, entails a particular set of choices for Australia. Beyond boosting their shared alliances with the US, such a move essentially means betting on Japan’s ability to wield strategic weight in the medium-term despite its economic, political and demographic limitations. It also involves counting on Australia’s ability either to have Chinese cake and eat it, too – or afford losing China’s goodwill down the line.

The second challenge is whether the growing strategic complexities in East Asia can be managed by regional states themselves taking on a bigger role. This imperative has tended to track concerns about long-term US commitment to the region, whether because of political will, economic constraints or distractions in other regions.

During his first, interrupted tenure as prime minister in 2006-7, Abe’s foreign policy vision included promoting an “arc of freedom and prosperity,” linking Japan with other major democracies such as India, Australia, the US and the European Union. That attempt fizzled partly because of a lack of enthusiasm from others. This time, Abbott has responded.

But unlike before, this Abe administration has not adopted a parallel policy of rapprochement with China; instead, it appears to be seeking wider-ranging regional partners to support its cause against Chinese assertion. Abe has taken to a new level the series of defense exchanges and strategic dialogues with key Southeast Asian countries underway since 2010. His administration is helping boost regional maritime capabilities, such as providing patrol boats for the Philippine Coast Guard, and doubling its military aid budget for Indonesia and Vietnam.

Against this background, if the Abbott government seriously pursues a deeper defense partnership with Japan, it will begin to sketch a line across the region connecting the two US allies in a putative collective stance against China. This would constitute an axis of two outliers, which have a marked history of trying to leapfrog the region for cultural and geopolitical reasons. They would stand in stark contrast to most other Asian nations – especially South Korea, Vietnam, even India – which do not want to choose sides. They do not see an option for escaping geographical proximity or entwined destinies with China.

An Australia-Japan coalition would end the universal “hedging” that East Asian states have tried to maintain for the past two decades between the US and China. Yet, over the medium term, such a bilateral defense partnership is unlikely to afford sufficient deterrence capability independently of American military commitments in the region.

This leads us to the third strategic challenge for East Asia: the conundrum of Japan. One of the key reasons for the peculiar post-World War II peace settlement for Japan was precisely to prevent East Asian countries from contracting multilateral alignments and engaging in this type of power-balancing. The US interposed itself between Japan and the rest of the region, especially China, by extending two parallel assurances. On the one hand, defeated Japan was eviscerated through the combination of constitutional constraints on war-making and external security dependence on the US. On the other, the US forward military presence in the region deterred potential regional threats to Japan’s security.

This bargain has broken down: With the gradual expansion of the scope and domain of Japan’s military activities abroad – spurred in part by the rise of Chinese military – since the end of the Cold War, the Chinese are no longer convinced that the US-Japanese alliance restrains Japan, but see it rather as facilitating Japanese remilitarization. In turn, the Chinese government has politicized the history issue with Japan and hardened its stance on maritime territorial disputes. The Japanese read growing Chinese antagonism as evidence that US deterrence may not hold. This escalating security dilemma is not helped by the fact that China and Japan have not had to confront each other directly for 70 years because the US has acted as ring-holder. By weighing in on Japan’s side, third parties exacerbate this central insecurity spiral.

How this Sino-Japanese alienation and the associated US-Japan-China security dilemma are managed is critical for regional stability. How to deter or dissuade China from further maritime assertiveness is the top security question for many in Asia. But taking Japan’s side against China is qualitatively different from supporting US leadership in the region. Australia and other East Asian countries should keep the big strategic picture in mind when making decisions about whether and how to advance defense cooperation with Japan.

Evelyn Goh is the Shedden Professor of Strategic Policy Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University. Email:
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