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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
March 3, 2003

Contemporary Issues in Australia – Japan Relations: political-security ties

David Walton (University of Western Sydney, Australia)

Recent efforts by the Australian and Japanese Governments to 're-energise' the bilateral relationship have been a belated acknowledgment that for the past five years relations have been static, humdrum and often taken for granted. First in Sydney (April 2001) and recently in Tokyo (November 2002) government officials, academics and selected individuals have discussed central problems and issues. The key recommendations have included support for a new trade & economic agreement and closer contacts on security and defence issues.

The recommendation to enhance the security and defence dimension of the relationship is welcome, but long over-due. To some extent the lack of defence ties, particularly in comparison to the extensive networks in the trade relationship, may be explained by an emphasis on commercial links by successive Japanese Governments. Australian leaders have also sought to avoid public endorsement of a security link with Japan due to the legacy of the Pacific War. Moreover, both countries have security treaties with the United States and have, particularly in the case of Japan, focused on direct dialogue with Washington. The events of September 11, 2001 and its aftermath however, have led to a re-examination of international security and indeed the role nation-states and non-state actors play in the international system. As part of a contribution to the 'War and Terrorism,' nation-states with close ties with the United States are encouraged to forge new security ties. Given the current international environment and the extent of regional consultation between Australia and Japan, a co-ordinated plan of action to combat terrorism in the region is essential. The lack of direct consultation on the 'War on Terrorism' until recently however, suggests that this aspect of the bilateral relationship has remained undeveloped.

Given the duration of bilateral ties and extent of regional co-operation and shared interest in maintaining a stable region, the lack of direct consultation on security issues is surprising. Since the late 1980s Australia and Japan have worked on developing closer co-operation on regional matters. So far co-operation has included successfully establishing APEC and joint efforts to assist countries affected severely by the Asian Financial Crisis. To supplement this, annual bilateral dialogue on security matters was implemented in 1997 and a military attaché system is in place. Despite this and despite a shared view that Indonesia and Southeast Asia more generally is an area of national importance, consultation has mainly been conducted at a multilateral level. Moreover when security issues have been considered, there has been poor communication and a lack of transparency in bilateral discussions. In the case of East Timor, Australia's leading role in INTERFET in the post August 1999 referendum period and Australian pressure on Japan to bank-roll the nation-building process created tension between Canberra and Tokyo. Principal factors behind the tension were differing views on how to deal with Indonesia (in relation to East Timor) and the Japanese perception that Australia had taken an unnecessarily aggressive leadership role. Japanese officials were reluctant to pursue 'cheque-book diplomacy' as a result of the Gulf War experience. It took some adept diplomacy and Japan's decision to send PKO troops to East Timor before good relations were restored. Australia was able to capitalise on this decision by providing Japan with information on conditions in East Timor and expertise on peacekeeping operations as part of the preparation for sending PKO troops. To some extent, disagreements of this sort are an important process in shaking off complacency in bilateral relations. However it has only been in the wake of the Bali bombing in October last year that direct bilateral consultation and intelligence sharing on terrorism has been substantially upgraded.

Is the bilateral relationship capable of maintaining its coherence in the wake of significant regional and global shifts?

The key determinate in answering this question is whether the extensive networks in Canberra and Tokyo will assist in establishing close and productive consultation on strategic and defence issues. In many respects the bilateral relationship is at a critical juncture. The broadening and deepening of defence and political ties will add more depth to bilateral relations. Importantly it might also indicate new directions in relations that would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago. An effort to 're-energise' the relationship has created considerable discussion within the academic communities of both countries. In a forthcoming Japanese Studies Association of Australia conference to be held in Brisbane in July for example, an entire stream of panels will be devoted to examining commercial, political, strategic, regional, cultural and diplomatic aspects of the bilateral relationship.

So far the signs are positive, but much will depend on what happens in the next twelve months. There are two main indicators that suggest there exists sufficient political will in both countries to substantially enhance strategic and defence ties. First, the recently established practice of an annual Prime Ministerial meeting is a positive step. Prime Ministers Howard and Koizumi are both strong supporters of the United States on the 'War on Terrorism'. Mr. Koizumi's visit to Australia last April was dominated by discussions on a possible free trade agreement and regional political issues such as developments on the Korean Peninsula and peacekeeping in East Timor. As such Koizumi's visit highlights the importance of regional security-related issues in contemporary bilateral relations. Second, Dr. Ashton Calvert has recently been re-appointed to a new three-year term as Secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Dr. Calvert's re-appointment is welcome news. He is a well-known Japan expert and has made a significant contribution to the bilateral relationship. Dr. Calvert no doubt, will channel his energies into enhancing the security links over the next few years.

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