Saturday 22 Sep 2018 | 10:59 | SYDNEY
Saturday 22 Sep 2018 | 10:59 | SYDNEY

Is Australia taking Japan for granted?

13 September 2011 16:05

Associate Professor Michael Heazle and Professor Andrew O'Neil teach International Relations at Griffith University.

China's rise is enhancing the importance of Australia in Japanese policy thinking. But there is a growing perception within Japanese policy circles that the bilateral relationship is in danger of being taken for granted under Labor. Indeed, the bilateral relationship between Australia and Japan is so resilient that its strength may make it vulnerable to misunderstandings about what it can be expected to endure.

These are some of the main observations that came out of a recent workshop hosted by the Griffith Asia Institute on misperceptions in the Australia-Japan relationship. Supported by the Australia-Japan Foundation, the Japan Foundation, and the Australian and Japanese Institutes of International Affairs, this 1.5 track dialogue featured a frank exchange of views between Japanese and Australian policy officials and academics, in addition to commentary on the relationship's broader regional significance from an Indonesian and ASEAN perspective.

The influence of China as a growing regional power on the Australia-Japan bilateral relationship was consistently referred to in workshop discussions. Both Japanese and Australian participants agreed that China's increased economic and military power was driving Australia and Japan towards a new stage in bilateral relations that included the prospect of greater security cooperation and commitment between the two nations.

Japanese policy-makers in particular are concerned by China's increased military strength and are uncertain over its long-term ambitions in the region. And given the history of close diplomatic cooperation between Australia and Japan and their respective alliance commitments with the US, Australia is increasingly coming to be regarded in Japanese policy circles as a natural partner in Tokyo's efforts to balance Chinese influence in the region, through initiatives like the East Asia Summit, the Trilateral Security Dialogue, and the cross-servicing and acquisition agreement signed in 2010.

However, discussions also revealed challenges and limits to the bilateral relationship developing a more substantial security dimension. In addition to Japan's constitutional constraints on security cooperation with other states is the important question of Australia's economic interests with China and how they can be safely managed while developing closer security ties with Japan.

Another is the question of how a more strategically assertive Japan, and the prospect of closer Australia-Japan security relations, would be received by other states in the region, in particular China. There was agreement that, while a less constrained Japanese military posture within the critical context of the US alliance would likely have regional support, there is the potential for an enlarged Japanese security role increasing anxiety in Beijing over its own security.

But although the changing regional security landscape is providing incentives for further engagement between the two countries beyond the traditional emphasis on trade and investment, differing perceptions of the relationship in Canberra and Tokyo have created tensions in recent years that require careful management by both partners.

Fears in Japan that China is supplanting Japan's role as Australia's most important regional diplomatic and trade partner have been magnified by several issues since Labor's 2007 election, beginning with Kevin Rudd's alleged 'Japan passing' in 2007 and his commitment to take Japan to the International Court of Justice over whaling.

Another indication that some aspects of the relationship were breaking down was the announcement by both Rudd and then Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama of two competing East Asia regional initiatives created independently of each other with no apparent consultation between Tokyo and Canberra. Discussions focused on how Japanese and Australian perceptions of the relationship differed in relation to these issues.

Indeed, a common perception on the Australian side appears to be that the relationship is mature and resilient enough to withstand disagreements over agricultural exports and protection, Australia's growing trade dependence on China, and even the instigation of international legal action against Japan's Antarctic whaling.

Japanese and some Australian participants, however, pointed out that this view is what has led many in Japan to believe that the relationship is being taken for granted in some respects. Overestimating Japanese patience on the whaling issue, for example, increases the danger of the dispute escalating to the point where significant damage to bilateral relations becomes a possibility.

The decision to take Japan to the ICJ, which some participants argued was primarily a response to Labor's domestic policy problems in mid-2010, is unlikely to resolve the whaling dispute, but it has at least taken whaling off the policy agenda for the time being. However, the potential for the dispute to damage the broader relationship, either as a result of Sea Shepherd's actions in the Antarctic or the ICJ's future ruling on the case, should not be underestimated.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.