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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (October 9, 2003)

Australia-Japan security relations in a post 9/11 environment

David Walton (University of Western Sydney)

The Bush Doctrine, with its emphasis on unilateralism and 'pre-emptive strike' has led to extensive consultation between Australia and Japan on regional security matters. Both countries, being long-term allies and dependent on US security, are committed to maintaining a strong US presence in the region. Trilateral meetings at the vice-Ministerial level involving the US, Australia and Japan have resulted in substantial consultations on pressing regional security concerns such as terrorism and the North Korea imbroglio. The recent multi-nation naval exercises in the Coral Sea (north Queensland) which involved the boarding of a vessel suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction, are a part of a new US-led regional approach to dealing with the belligerent government in Pyongyang. Notably a Japanese coastguard ship played a leading role in one particular set of exercises.

Although an extensive range of networks at the national and sub-national level exists in the Australia-Japan relationship, security links have been low-key until recently. Talks on politico-military issues began in earnest in 1991 and were formalised in 1997. Until the tumultuous events of 11 September, 2001 however, the security treaty arrangements both countries have with the United States limited the scope of security dialogue. The Japanese decision to send Self Defence Force (SDF) personnel to participate in the UN peacekeeping operation in East Timor in late 2001 provided the opportunity for closer ties between the Defence establishments in Tokyo and Canberra. Australia's pivotal role in International Forces for East Timor (INTERFET) and expertise on East Timor and peacekeeping more generally offered scope for consultation. From June 2001 regular seminars by Australian specialists were conducted for Japanese Defence Agency officials in Tokyo. Over the past two years consultation has resulted in co-ordination between the two countries on nation building in East Timor. So far this has included a long-term commitment to large aid and humanitarian programmes, military forces and civilian expertise in the United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET). As well both countries have co-ordinated efforts in multilateral forums to ensure an ongoing commitment by the international community to assist and support the new nation. Another key commitment agreed to by Canberra and Japan is to ensure that East Timor and Indonesia 'normalise' their relationship. To this end Japan has maintained an active role in humanitarian programmes assisting the repatriation of East Timorese languishing in camps in Indonesian West Timor. Australia has been involved in trilateral talks with East Timor and Indonesian representatives designed to resolve tensions between Dili and Jakarta.

It is the United States' new foreign and strategic policies rather than regional issues however, that are the catalyst for closer defence ties between Australia and Japan. Clearly the role of the United States as the 'hyper-power' is critical. Indeed Australia's close ties to the United States and access to policy-makers and intelligence material in Washington, which to a large extent is a result of the Howard-Bush relationship, has given Australia new-found credibility in Japan. Ironically though the emphasis on the US in both Canberra and Tokyo restricts bilateral co-operation. The recent Defence Agreement signed between Australia and Japan, although an important and positive step in the process towards developing security networks and formal links between the two defence establishments is indicative of this trend. The sharing of intelligence information and exchange of military college cadets are positive outcomes. Yet the bilateral relationship, which has largely been driven by commercial interests and suffers spasmodically from issues related to the Pacific War, is not ready for a substantial increase in security links let alone a full- blown security relationship. Neither government would support such a venture, nor is it feasible in the foreseeable future. The volatile security environment and the fact that the agreement is piecemeal and working within a United States security framework, has made the upgrade in security links palatable both domestically and internationally.

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