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Japan and Australia signed a new security agreement on Oct. 22 that establishes a very close security partnership between the two countries, though it stops short of a mutual defense commitment
The agreement includes efforts to deepen defense cooperation, intelligence sharing, economic security cooperation, and climate and energy security, and several other categories of cooperation
This milestone in Japan-Australian ties represents a broader trend of American allies moving beyond the US-centric hub-and-spoke alliance system and seeking closer security ties with one another through bilateral and “minilateral” arrangements
More than Koalas
The Oct. 22 meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Perth mostly made the news thanks to the peculiarly Australian greeting awaiting the Japanese prime minister, a hug with a koala and photoshoot with matching green vests. Behind the cuddly animals and pageantry, though, lies a new agreement that is deepening one of the Indo-Pacific region’s most important strategic partnerships.
Kishida visited Western Australia to sign an updated security cooperation agreement that makes Australia one of Japan’s closest defense partners, arguably second only to the United States. Australia, in turn, is signaling that it is fully committed to making Japan its closest security partner outside of its traditional anglophone relations with the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand. The rapidly deepening Australia-Japan strategic relationship highlights the importance of several important trends for Indo-Pacific security, namely the increased popularity of “minilaterals,” a rise in security arrangements between American allies, and the importance of energy security.
Beyond Hubs and Spokes
Although both Australia and Japan are firmly ensconced in their respective military alliances with the United States, Tokyo and Canberra did not form any meaningful bilateral security relationship until 2007. That year, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo agreed to a “Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation,” promising to cooperate on regional security issues, committing to future joint exercises and training, and initiating annual “2+2” dialogues with each country’s defense and foreign ministers.
The Japan-Australia relationship deepened with the 2009 initiation of bilateral military exercises and regular defense exchanges. More recently, Australia and Japan have acted as the cornerstones of the “Quad,” an informal grouping of the two countries with the United States and India that meets on a regular basis to coordinate on regional security. Earlier this year, Japan and Australia signed a “Reciprocal Access Agreement,” allowing for more seamless dispatches of defense forces from one country to the other and enabling future combined exercises.
To be sure, the relationship has not always been smooth sailing. Canberra frustrated some in Tokyo after it chose a French manufacturer over Japanese bids for a $40 billion submarine purchase in April 2016. Controversially, Australia would subsequently cancel that order with France entirely in favor of American and British-designed nuclear powered submarines under a new trilateral security agreement called “AUKUS.” The multi-part saga strained Australia’s defense relations with both Paris and Tokyo.
The ambition and depth of this year’s new security agreement, however, makes the submarine affair appear a mere speed bump. The new pact, also called the “Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation,” commits both sides to increased cooperation on a laundry list of topics including military interoperability, intelligence, cybersecurity, space cooperation, logistics, law enforcement, and energy security. While the text does not explicitly mention China, the agreement seems squarely and unambiguously pointed at countering the regional giant’s influence. Indeed, Beijing reacted harshly to the agreement, stating that it could lead to a “new cold war” in the region.
Of note, part six of the agreement states that both sides “will consult each other on contingencies that may affect our sovereignty and regional security interests, and consider measures in response.” As noted by experts, David Walton and Daisuke Akimoto, that wording resembles Article III in the ANZUS Treaty which signals a very close defense relationship but stops short of codifying a full mutual defense commitment, like the US-Australia defense commitment enshrined in Article IV of the ANZUS Treaty. It also mentions the importance of “resisting economic coercion and disinformation” in a clear reference to China’s recent actions against Australia and Japan.
The Age of Minilaterals
This new agreement highlights the importance of three ongoing trends in Indo-Pacific security. First, it is another example of the continued move towards so-called “minilaterals” in the region’s defense architecture. This term refers to the recent flowering of security links through a web of complementary but separate point-to-point security arrangements, in contrast with the more unified networked security arrangements in Europe. As described by Jada Fraser writing for the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, minilaterals often necessarily come with more narrow agendas than larger security arrangements. Yet, in the Indo-Pacific they are proving to be flexible and durable arrangements that facilitate stronger consensus-building in a rapidly changing region.
For example, the Joint Declaration can be understood as a new minilateral on intelligence sharing between Canberra and Tokyo. While Japan’s readiness for full membership in the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing pact (which includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and United States) is frequently debated, this new agreement promotes bilateral intelligence sharing on “strategic assessments.” For Japan, participation in lower-level intelligence sharing with a Five Eyes member may not be groundbreaking on its own, but serves as another step in tightening an array of intelligence-sharing relationships between strategically aligned countries in the Indo-Pacific.
Another minilateral, the Quad, also stands to benefit from this new agreement. The Quad is a decidedly informal arrangement without specific security obligations, leading some to minimize its potential impact on regional security. Nevertheless, its convening power and influence are clearly leading to increased security ties between its individual members. Several barriers, mostly the restrictions of India’s complex geopolitical position, stand between the Quad’s current structure and its potential future as a more formal security pact. Nevertheless, the strengthening of ties between two individual Quad members through the Joint Declaration will likely result in a stronger Quad organization overall, boosting the bloc’s future influence.
Second, this new agreement demonstrates that Canberra and Tokyo are determined to counteract any future American disengagement in the Indo-Pacific by deepening their own ties. Although prospects for such disengagement look low today, both Canberra and Tokyo fear a potential shift towards isolationism in Washington. The Joint Declaration allows both countries to hedge against such a worst-case scenario by bolstering relations with like-minded regional partners. Simultaneously, it seeks to serve as a mechanism to keep such a worst-case scenario from occurring in the first place by encouraging deeper US security involvement in the Indo-Pacific.
Canberra and Tokyo may see this year’s Joint Declaration as an equivalent failsafe in the unlikely but not-implausible scenario of American disengagement from the Indo-Pacific. Neither US ally wants Washington to disengage from the region, and neither is betting on that occurring, but both appear to be planning for any development.
To be sure, the Joint Declaration should be understood as a highly beneficial and complementary addition to the US alliances with Japan and Australia. Kishida and Albanese said as much during the signing of the agreement, clearly communicating that their defense vision is intended to strengthen each country’s respective security relationship with Washington. Nevertheless, this development is evidence that American allies in the Indo-Pacific are no longer satisfied organizing their security arrangements through Washington alone, and are forming tighter links within the region on their own terms.
Follow the Energy
Third, the recent prominence given to energy security by both Canberra and Tokyo highlights the importance of this issue for both countries, and the region as a whole. While most headlines on energy security focus on Europe’s need for reliable power and gas following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, East Asia and Oceania, too, are facing a crisis of energy supplies. As a result, Japan and Australia would like to pin themselves as decisive energy-producing and consuming states in the Indo-Pacific. Both countries consider reliable energy flows to be part of their national security, and are likely to continue deepening their security partnership into the energy sphere.
Japan and Australia are far from the only countries in the Indo-Pacific concerned with their energy security. South Korea and Taiwan are essentially equally as dependent on imported energy as Japan. Gas exporting states in Southeast Asia, like Brunei and Malaysia, are constantly seeking to diversify their customer base, wary of becoming dependent on a single market. By boosting cooperation on energy security through the Joint Declaration, Canberra and Tokyo are signaling to the Indo-Pacific that they are willing to play leading roles in addressing an emerging regional priority.
A Step in the Right Direction
Canberra and Tokyo’s updated security pact should come as little surprise to observers, as Japan and Australia see only upsides in tightening their bilateral relationship. Indeed, leaders in both countries often see their own strategic concerns reflected in their counterpart’s geopolitical position: Japan and Australia are island countries, wary of their dependence on trade and economic ties with China, treaty allies of the United States, and deeply concerned with access to trade routes, global commons, and energy flows. Canberra and Tokyo are also looking to hedge against the potential of future US disengagement in the Indo-Pacific, and seek counterbalances to China’s increasing influence.
Moving forward, observers should expect more deepening of regional security ties, both between Japan and Australia and between both countries and other strategically aligned states. This seems especially true for India, the third leg of the Quad. That said, Japan and Australia seem unlikely to move towards forging a formal treaty alliance, if only because there is no apparent urgent need to do so. Nevertheless, Japan and Australia should be considered de-facto allies, as Canberra and Tokyo are both signaling that they are prepared to use their defense forces to assist each other’s shared strategic goals. The United States should encourage its allies and partners in the region to forge similar relationships based on mutual benefit, and take the lead of its allies in recognizing the importance of topics like energy security in the Indo-Pacific.
Australia and Japan, two countries that placed their national security in the hands of the United States since the end of the Second World War, are beginning to forge their own shared strategy for the region. This, in turn, should be viewed as a success and a very welcome byproduct of the US-backed alliance system in Washington.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. In addition, the views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the US Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.