Japan looks west to guard against a rising China

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Japan’s Special Defense Forces could become more offensive with a change of the constitution

Japan signed on Thursday a new security treaty with Australia, a fellow middle power that is similarly aligning against an increasingly assertive China.

The blandly-branded Reciprocal Access Agreement, which was signed virtually by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, marks the conclusion of a process that started in 2014, when the negotiations kicked off.

“Japan is our closest partner in Asia as demonstrated by our special strategic partnership, Australia’s only such partnership – an equal partnership of shared trust between two great democracies committed to the rule of law, human rights, free trade and a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Morrison said during the cyber signing ceremony.

Both leaders also took a swipe at Beijing.

Kishida and Morrison voiced “serious concerns” about the situations in the South and East China seas, where China is engaged in territorial disputes with neighboring nations. The two also voiced shared concerns about reported human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang, and about Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

The RAA has no real fangs: It lacks the ne plus ultra of defense treaties, a mutual defense pact. However, experts say, it clears the groundwork for closer cooperation between the two sides’ armed forces.

Procedurally, this is especially important for Japan. Shackled in defense matters by its pacificist constitution, the legal and administrative side of the treaty leaps major procedural hurdles.

Strategically, it grants Tokyo – which famously projected power deep into Oceania during World War II – an ally in, and a potential balcony onto, the Central and South Pacific where China is spreading its influence.

Economically, it may provide Japanese arms merchants with entry to Australia’s defense market. But politically and culturally, Tokyo’s new agreement with a southern hemisphere Western nation is particularly telling.

Japan’s only significant security relationship is with the United States, and, with the Australian deal done, Tokyo is seeking similar ties with the UK and France.

Tokyo has also voiced interest in joining the Anglosphere “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance that includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

The lean toward Anglo-Pacific and Atlanticist, rather than East Asian allies, underlines a major strategic problem facing Japan: It is largely friendless in its own neighborhood, Northeast Asia.

“When secondary powers see strategic odds stacking up – they sign alliances and build coalitions in order to face off against major powers,” a source familiar with diplomatic affairs told Asia Times. “Australia and Japan are both undertaking that now.”

The two face a similar conundrum. They are both heavily reliant upon China for trade, but as democracies are aligned against it in values and in the regional strategic space. Both are members of the Quad alliance, which also includes India and the United States.

The signing of the agreement takes place against a shifting backdrop in Japan.

Prominent right-wing personalities including former prime minister Shinzo Abe are agitating for a stronger China-facing policy by the government of the middle-of-the-road Prime Minister Fumio. When it comes to public perceptions, the agitators might be pushing on an open door.

A change in consciousness appears to be underway in Japan, reflected in November elections which saw a rightward shift.

“Even more than how our diplomatic cards are being played, I think the Japanese people are beginning to worry about China’s oppressive and coercive ways – especially in Hong Kong and Taiwan,” said Haruko Satoh, a professor at the Osaka School of International Public Policy where she teaches Japan’s relations with Asia.

“I think Japanese are not indifferent to it and I think this is the first time in the post-war era when these values have entered the popular consciousness,” she told Asia Times.

Dissecting the RAA

The RAA is designed to enable closer collaboration between the armed forces of Australia and Japan, and also includes provisions on sensitive technologies and carbon neutrality.

The RAA will facilitate faster deployment of defense personnel and ease restrictions on the transportation of weapons and supplies for joint training and disaster relief operations. It is also expected to ease upgrades to inter-operability.

Australia is the second country after the US to sign such an agreement with Japan, Kyodo News reported. Canberra and Tokyo will launch a joint committee on implementation.

“Basically this is a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA),” said the source familiar with diplomatic matters. “But now they have got it, it opens the door to wider strategization and securitization of foreign policy under the current governments.”

Crossing the various legal “t”s and dotting the “i”s is particularly important in Tokyo which, unlike Canberra, is shackled by a pacifist constitution.

“Due to their constitutional constraints, that would have had to put these things through the Diet and tell Diet members what the scope of these things are,” said Alex Neill, an independent security specialist based in Singapore. “Now this has been done, it will open up the relationship to formally do more stuff.”

Some “stuff” where the two players may converge could well involve Australia’s backyard in the region.

“I think an interesting area of convergence will be Oceania,” said Neill. “Abe had an interest in pushing back in that direction, and the US sees it as a new strategic region of tensions with China.”

Though Abe left office in 2019, he retains a strong influence in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party as a key faction head.  

“Oceania is an area where Australia and Japan can enhance cooperation, as China is now pushing into Oceania and Japan knows the region well,” Neill continued.

China has been building infrastructure in and for the smaller island nations in the region, including both port facilities and digital equipment. Chinese oceanic survey ships and fishing fleets are also active in Oceania. Some critics of China consider these assets to represent “gray-zone” capabilities.

Oceania is also, Neill notes, “one of the last battlegrounds of diplomatic recognition” between China and Taiwan.

Another area that the agreement may enable is Japanese defense equipment sales.

“The framework of this agreement would enable Japan’s defense industrial base – small though it is – to legally sell to, or do collaborative defense technologies, with Australia,” said Neill. “Right now the AUKUS talk is about submarines, but is supposed to be command and control, AI, cyber, drones and all that. Japan wants to get much more involved in that, and has the technological capability to do it.”

Indeed, 2021’s AUKUS deal overturned a previous deal with France for conventional submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. Tokyo had earlier lost that bid to Paris.

The source familiar with diplomatic affairs was less sure.

“Given that Australia has undertaken several major purchases recently, there is not going to be a lot more for a conceivable amount of time,” he said. “But you do deal with people you have common interests with and that may be the Japanese perspective.”

The reason Japan is looking beyond the closer geographic and cultural horizons of East Asia for its alliances is clear. The lynchpin of Japanese security is its alliance with the distant United States, for in its immediate region, Northeast Asia, it has no close friends, let alone allies.

Hostile strategic compass

Geographically, it is telling that Japan’s major allies live east across the Pacific and south in Oceania. Culturally, the East Asian island nation – which some regional critics accuse of insular exceptionalism – appears to operate more comfortably with Western democracies.

To its north, it is locked in long-term territorial disputes with Russia which date back to the final days of World War II.

To its west is heavily militarized, hyper-nationalistic North Korea, which frequently tests missiles in the Sea of Japan. It has even launched ballistic missiles into the atmosphere over the nation.

South of the DMZ is Japan’s only potential near-horizon ally, South Korea – but that bilateral relationship could hardly be classified as friendly. The neighboring democracies and US allies are locked in seemingly endless historical, diplomatic and territorial disputes that have, since 2019, also impacted trade relations.

While the Japanese and Taiwanese share mutual positive feelings, Tokyo’s right-wing is agitating to upgrade relations with the self-governing island, which feels threatened by China. How far – or whether – that agitation will translate into policy remains to be seen.

But by far the most powerful polity in Northeast Asia is the communist-run nation and historical competitor that has overtaken democratic Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy, and which is now extending its trade, aid and military influence across the globe: China

Beyond Northeast Asia, Japan enjoys positive relations in Southeast Asia. But while the regional grouping of ASEAN has had important economic ramifications, it has shown itself, in the face of Chinese base-builds in the disputed South China Sea, to be virtually hapless at security.

These various factors – as well as concerns about the reliability of a frayed US, which surfaced during the Donald Trump presidency and resurfaced amid the humiliating retreat from Afghanistan – explain Japan’s outreach to Australia, and latterly, to the UK and France.

Japan is well acquainted with Australia, its World War II foe. Between 2004-2006, Japanese troops, engaged in reconstruction efforts in Iraq, relied upon Australian troops for their security and both are members of the loose Quad alliance. Visiting forces of the two European nations both drilled in and around Japan in 2021.

But all roads lead back to the region’s rising power.

“China is the main factor in everything if you look at the past 10 years” for Japan, said Satoh. “Russia is there, but the bigger concern is definitely China.”

Even ever-menacing North Korea is not a key metric when it comes to the overarching problems facing Japanese defense planners.

“North Korea has given ammunition to the [Japanese] right-wing, as it is more visible and plays better in the press, especially when they are firing things – it creates a big noise,” Satoh said. “But for the defense community, it is China.”

Yet, the international relations specialist says that Japan’s growing partnerships with like-minded allies should not be blown out of proportion.

“Japan is basically not doing anything special – these are sort of diplomatic gestures which kind of pressure China,” she said. “Kishida is only following what the foreign ministry has been suggesting for the last 10 years, which is strengthening security cooperation with like-minded powers.”

And pragmatic ties continue to link Beijing and Tokyo. “There is a deep strategic understanding between China and Japan,” Satoh said. “There are some lines that will not be crossed.”

Japan looks West to guard against a rising China — Asia Times

Tony Simon

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