Despite their locations on opposite ends of the Pacific, Australia and Japan share many concerns: the safety of their shipping via sea lanes, the increased pressure put on them by China's rise in power and a complicated alliance with the United States. As Washington's reliability and effectiveness as an ally diminish, it's logical that a more robust relationship between Australia and Japan would extend beyond the economic realm into the security sphere. To that end, Australia and Japan have been working to develop a security structure independent of their alliance with the United States intended to eventually bring in additional allies, both Asian and European.
The long diplomatic relationship between Japan and Australia began under Japan's Tokugawa government in 1854. After the countries' military confrontation during World War II, a strong trade relationship bloomed. Today, the foundations are being set for an Indo-Pacific security structure with both nations as its cornerstones.
In June 1976, Japan and Australia signed the Basic Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, laying out their bilateral relations for the first time since World War II ended. Their relationship, especially in the economic realm, has increased in scope and complexity ever since. Australia is now Japan's fourth-largest trading partner — and its top supplier of energy and mineral resources. The two countries signed the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) in 2015, and Australia lists Japan as its second-largest trading partner. Together they organized the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership when President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the original Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations in 2016.
On the security front, their relationship is deepening as well. The "2+2" talks involving Japanese and Australian defense and foreign ministers started in 2010. Out of those came the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), calling for increased bilateral military cooperation. That agreement would allow access to each other's territory by their respective military personnel. As reported in The Diplomat on April 10, a major sticking point remains rules over capital punishment for military personnel. Japan allows soldiers to be executed, but Australia does not. Negotiations over that point continue, however. Interestingly, the RAA allows provisions for additional allies to be brought on board at a later date.
A Loss of Trust in the United States
In a July 2018 essay titled "With Trump at large, Australia needs a Plan B for defense," Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a traditional booster of the U.S.-Australian alliance, argued for measures boosting Australian security. While the piece made clear that the Australian defense relationship with the United States should continue, it said that the country should increase defense spending, consider security ties with Japan, develop nuclear submarines and add to its military ranks.
In March 2019, Hiroyuki Akita, a writer and editor for the Nikkei Asian Review, referenced Jennings' call in his article advocating that Japan form a security alliance that includes not only Australia but also France, England and even Belgium. Like Jennings, he stressed the importance of maintaining the current treaty with the United States but noted that it was "not inconceivable" that the alliance could unravel.
Reading the Writing on the Wall
Japan is currently involved in the Talisman Sabre war games organized by Australia. Although its participation in this exercise was set for some time, in June, Tokyo dramatically scaled up its security forces' planned participation. Japanese warships and amphibious troops will be joining the war games for the first time.
This is an obvious sign Japan is taking security ties with Australia more seriously, but the Japanese government has been laying the groundwork for that relationship for some time. The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has been developing a legal framework to allow for the transfer of military assets between the two. In its annual paper published February 2019 regarding permits for the transfer of military equipment to foreign lands, the ministry not only details the issuance of permits for military equipment and technology to Australia but also calls for a stronger overall security relationship. The ministry had been working on this project since October 2014, the paper indicated. The Japanese government is not only diplomatically but institutionally setting the course for a military relationship with Australia.
Canberra is actively encouraging the Australian public to support deeper ties with Japan. Australian Defense Minister Christopher Pyne in January 2019 publicly supported Japan's increased defense spending despite worries articulated about the implications for the stability of the Indo-Pacific region. In July, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Australian media that he regretted not being able to secure a contract with Japanese developers in 2016 to help develop Australia's new class of submarine. Tokyo had coveted the contract, which ultimately was awarded to French developers in 2015. Those and an increasing number of other public comments by Australian leaders concerning their country's relationship with Japan show a growing willingness on their part to accept a new security framework with Japan as a cornerstone.
The Reciprocal Access Agreement did not spring from a void, but rather is a product of years of relationship-building between two Pacific middle powers.
A Long-Term Trend Accelerates
A tighter security relationship between Japan and Australia has been developing since the conclusion of the Economic Partnership Talks in 2014. Talks between the Australian and Japanese defense ministers began in May 2010 at the 2+2 negotiations. The countries' prime ministers released the Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in 2007, the first such declaration outside of their relationship with the United States. Both Australia and Japan have eyed one another as a strategic partner now for 12 years and have been acting accordingly.
The Reciprocal Access Agreement did not spring from a void, but rather is a product of years of relationship-building between two Pacific middle powers with much at stake: the stability and security of the Indo-Pacific region in face of a rising China and a declining and increasingly unreliable United States.
Doubts about U.S. direction have deepened in both countries, especially so in the wake of the Group of 20 summit in June. The repercussions of Trump's musings about ending the U.S. security pact with Japan and of his visit to the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone and embrace of leader Kim Jong Un have yet to fully play out. But it's certain that decision-makers in Japan and Australia alike could read the president's actions in the context of the standing Pacific security framework as discouraging.
Japan and Australia have begun work on a Pan-Asian, Indo-Pacific security structure that would include Western Europe but not the United States. Though this structure does not currently exist, the framework of what it would take to build it does. Both countries still wish to maintain security ties with the United States, and publicly state so. However, given their uncertainty about the direction that the current White House will take, neither side appears comfortable with the status quo. As a result, both countries will continue to move forward with alternative means to guarantee their security in the Pacific.