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The Japan-Australia Security Agreement: A Welcome Geopolitical Marriage or the Coming Together of Two American Ideologues? [ 2008.05.21 ]

[2007.04.28]
Every nation in the Western Pacific rim knows what it is like to have a militaristic Japan living next door. Given the lessons of history these same neighbours of Japan wish to see no alteration to contemporary Japanese military policy, except for maybe one; Australia. Whilst Australia may not have born the brunt of Japanese 20th Century imperialism it certainly received its share of unprovoked war time hostility, and yet some 60 years on the Australian Prime Minister has just signed off on a historic security agreement with his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, in Tokyo. This agreement, which is officially neither a treaty nor a defence pact, is focused on those aspects of national and regional security which the two nations think can be boosted bilaterally, such as counter-terrorism, maritime security, peacekeeping efforts, and stronger links in general between the two militaries. So how can this be that a nation once bombed and torpedoed by the then regional aggressor can so readily forgive and move forward in terms of joint security whilst other, closer, more culturally similar nations cannot? How is it that Australia can embrace Japan for all its perceived good intentions whilst others, notably China and the two Koreas cannot? Obviously the Australian government can see something positive on the horizon for Japan’s future. China and the Korean peninsula cannot. So there are two main points to address here. Why do Japan and Australia think that closer military ties are a good thing, and conversely, why does the rest of north Asia disagree?

The first point regarding Japan and Australia’s heightened military friendship should be the easier concept to understand, and unsurprisingly it involves the United States. It is no coincidence that this bilateral agreement, only the second in Japan’s post-war history, mirrors the one drawn up by the Americans after Japanese defeat in the Pacific theatre of war six decades ago. Whilst the Japanese were quick to shy away from the Australian government’s initial proposal of a treaty, the political intent of this watered down document is clear. This agreement effectively tells the region that Japan and Australia trust each other more than any other nation bar the US, and that in order for both nations to feel secure they need to overtly support each other both in terms of media rhetoric and physical alliance. Hey everybody, guess what? There are terrorists out there, but for those of you in Japan and Australia don’t worry, because your respective governments have combined forces to protect you, and they won’t rest until every conflict in the known world is resolved. This is the spin both governments have invariably placed upon the agreement through the various media channels at their disposal, but even a blind man caught in a Gobi desert sand storm can see the real, genuine intentions behind the deal, and it is much less to do with your day to day suicide bomber than you might think. Who is Japan trying to fool with such talk of terrorism and the tearing down of peaceful democracies from within? With such a homogenous society Japan must be one of the safest places, if not the safest place in the world to live in terms of domestic disturbance. Australia on the other hand is a massive country, vulnerable to the threat of invasion, with a tiny, by world standards, armed force, and with the actual threat of domestic terrorism rearing its ugly head. Given Japan’s inexperience with matters of international terrorism can it really offer Australia much help in this regard? Certainly in terms of military infrastructure it can. With the Japanese defence forces preparing to train on Australian soil Australia’s armed forces are set to benefit hugely in gaining experience with state of the art military hardware and interaction with a highly technical and well educated group of trained armed personnel. This type of knowledge provision is priceless to Australia’s armed intelligence and together with the interaction with America, Australia will be at it’s militarily peak as an effective force for engaging enemies of the state. Basically this deal makes a lot of sense for Australia in terms of ‘on the ground’ interaction but for Japan this bilateral agreement is really about consolidating its US led political edge within the region, the covert motive being to contain China.

China’s economy is growing faster than Kim Jong-Il’s Hollywood Movies DVD collection and the US and Japan are the ones set to lose most by a rampant Chinese business sector. Then comes the all too familiar threat of Chinese military dominance. Australia is still unsure where to tread on its path of China relations. Being such an important trade partner yet having such a disagreeable ideology means Australia has always got to handle its Beijing diplomacy ever so carefully. In other words, Australia’s leading politicians have to convince China regularly that they are not ‘in bed with America’, even if in reality they are at the very least ‘fluffing the pillows and helping to change the sheets’. Japan on the other hand is indifferent. China is no less an important trading partner but the island nation does not go out of its way to hide its massive allegiance to the US and all which that entails. This is what makes China nervous. The bilateral agreement between Japan and Australia is really just a confirmation that the US is ever present in the Asia side of the Asia-Pacific. The three nations make a troika of free-trading, democratic and above all wealthy states that, like any aligned group, are largely interested in serving themselves. They may use flowery language to assuage north Asian concerns about overt attempts to contain a rampant China, but when the US laughably cries foul to the United Nations about Chinese human rights abuses what they are really trying to say is ‘look how bad China treats its citizens, Beijing should be discouraged from seeking influence in world politics because they hate free speech and domestic criticism of their own government’. It is just about America’s only argument concerning why China is not necessarily a country worthy of seeking a greater role in global politics, despite all the obvious trade benefits. Washington is nervous, or at least the fortune tellers within the Whitehouse can see troubled times ahead as China looks to take a larger piece of the world’s economic pie at the expense of the US. So while it is debatable whether any movers and shakers in the Bush administration urged Japan and Australia to reach this historic agreement it is certainly an international commitment that they welcome with great anticipation, hoping that it will lead to an overarching program of general Chinese containment.

China’s reservations about this new agreement are rightly founded on their thoughts regarding US domination but they also, along with North and South Korea, feel slighted by Japan’s bold new step towards military normalization. Prime Minister Abe is the first Japanese prime minister born post-war, and he must be forgiven for wondering sometimes why it is that Japan is not allowed to have an armed force with the ability to bare its teeth at perceived wrong doers whilst China and North Korea can maintain the world’s first and fourth largest armed forces respectively. There is nothing in those nations’ constitutions that stops them from deciding to attack anyone at anytime. Of course that concept as a rule is abhorrent but two wrongs do not make a right and the communist leaders of north Asia would do well to consider that unless they put on the public record their official refusal to fight on foreign soil then why should Japan be forced to keep this ridiculous aspect of its own constitution. In light of China’s ever burgeoning economic boom and associated military investment should not Japan’s attempts to normalize its own military be acceptable. Yes, in most recent history Japan was the aggressor, however the future is a new game and Japan should not necessarily be at a disadvantage. Of course the world would be better off with no arms races, however like two kids squaring off in the school yard, no one wants to be seen as the weaker, and so Japan must be allowed to show it can match its diplomacy with an active fighting force. Do the people of China and Korea honestly believe that a reinstated military in Japan is going to lead to new imperialistic intentions? Japan is not going to invade another country as far as they remain in bed with the US and the ideals of free market globalization. To think otherwise would be unwarranted scare mongering and disappointing dogmatism, led of course by that wise and noble ‘hermit king’ Kim Jong-Il, who seems to keep his own position secure by preaching to his body populace about the inherent evils of ‘Imperialist Japan’. A concept with some merit in the post-war decades, but if only the average North Korean was allowed to observe and consider the Japan of today they would be less persuaded by the Dear Leader’s ranting. Interestingly enough the Stalinist state seems to have been a major driving force behind the Japan-Australia proposition as it is the only nation, apart from the US, that is actually referred to in the documentation. Despite some analysts arguing the case that Japan can use a nuclear-armed North Korea as justification for military rejuvenation, the Diet expresses real concern at the DPRK ever developing full blown weapons of mass destruction. As ‘Leaders of the Free World’ both Prime Ministers Abe and Howard are in complete agreement about resolving the North Korean issue and the whole region should be more concerned with ‘normalizing’ North Korea than a normalized Japanese Defence Force.

Next on the list of nations offended by this deal is the Republic of Korea, the southern brethren of the Korean peninsula. In an interesting twist of modern history South Korea, like Japan, embraces America, and yet still feels uncomfortable with its eastern neighbour. Does Seoul have a problem with Japan as a rival industrialist competing in a ‘dog eat dog’ world of capitalist domineering, or is it much simpler than that? From a neutral perspective it really does appear that the South Koreans would just like a genuine political and cross-cultural acknowledgement of wrongs past by Japan. Any credible text will reveal the type of sufferings that Korean people went through in the name of Japanese colonization but Koreans should not forget that, although the numbers may be vastly less, Australian men and women also suffered horribly at the hands of their would-be Imperialists. The notion of ‘comfort women’ is common to both elder generations of Australia and Korea so conceptually South Korea is not alone in feeling aggrieved in this matter. Also the prisoner of war conditions that many Aussie Diggers went through is enough to churn any stomach and Australians have not forgotten this ill treatment. That is why this new bilateral arrangement received a small but outspoken barrage of criticism from some sections of the Australian community, notably the Returned and Services League, a body representing soldiers retired from active duty, especially from World War II. These men and women remain as agitated by Japan as many Koreans still are, however the majority of Australians have accepted history is done and dusted and that Japan is now invariably an ally by default. The two nations have that much in common that during Prime Minister Howard’s ten year tenure Japan has become his number one associate in the whole of Asia. As the Republic of Korea is striving to become a highly developed, technologically advanced, democratic society of free-will and social integrity, the kind exemplified by contemporary Japan and Australia, then surely now is the time to accept Japan as an out and out ally the way Australia is doing, and to remove the last thin veil of suspicion and resentment that the leaders in Seoul perpetuate. It is unfortunate that as yet Japan cannot see fit to make a concise and focused apology to the peoples of north Asia that still hurt from last century’s atrocities, but this should not be an inhibiting factor in accepting Japanese military normalization. By all means the concerned governments should continue pressing for an historic statement of regret from Tokyo, but only as a side issue to accepting Japan as a regional friend. It should not be held up as the all encompassing reason for remaining hostile to or worried by the island nation.

Did Japan and Australia enter into this agreement with the best intentions for the region or with the idea of shoring up their own agendas of US foreign policy alignment? The two leaders will certainly focus on the former, but the later must invariably be true, as the US agenda in north Asia is shared with its Japanese and Australian cohorts. Whilst Australia and Japan are not yet obliged to come to each others aid in the event of war, surely this political deal is just the first on a short path to full scale amity, but at what cost to their respective relationships with China, and to a lesser extent South Korea. Should it really be of any other nations concern what cooperative wheeling and dealing two avowed peaceful democracies practice with each other, if it is to the greater good of themselves and not to the detriment of any one else? China will no doubt be keeping massive tabs on this heightened regional relationship, and the Japanese and Australian governments will have to work extra hard to assure their neighbors that nothing under hand or sinister is on the new partners’ agenda, but economic ties are just too important to China for them to rebuke too strongly this modest allegiance between its number two trading partner, Japan, and a major source of its resource imports, Australia. China and the Korean peninsula will likely never warm to the idea of a normalized Japanese military, not least of all if Japan cannot do the decent thing and deliver a profound request for forgiveness, but like it or not the idea will become a reality before too many more history books have been authorized for publication. In that case they can choose to remain miserable in the face of Japan’s world standing, or take the sensible decision to cautiously accept that all nation states deserve the right to have militias of equal authority, even former wrong doers. If anything these nations should realize that the inclusion of Australia in Japan’s military future is an assuring aspect to armed normalization, since Australia espouses a peaceful regional doctrine and provides a steady hand on the wheel as Japan looks to steer itself forward defensively. The developed world, with Japan at the forefront, has largely moved on from using force to obtain the goals of power and wealth. If north Asia is so anti-Japan than why have they embraced the business, trade, and financial aspects of that nation. Japan is so heavily invested in their mainland neighbors that military force is completely and utterly out of the question. Global dominance is fought largely through the world’s stock exchanges so whilst some nations will always feel aggrieved at world events, there should be little fear that a stable, highly developed, and economically secure nation like Japan will seek to shoot bullets at any potential investor or investment, and in this age of globalization that means anybody and everybody. So the final message to the Asia-Pacific is to appreciate the concept of this new and progressive alliance, and not read into it thoughts of confrontation and future discomfort. Australia never has and never will initiate armed aggression against any other sovereign state, and it would never enter into such a meaningful relationship without feeling completely confident that its partner would portray the exact same sentiments. It is up to north Asia to accept or deny a new look Japan but they will always maintain diplomatic relations either way, as you have to keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.

Columnist, Bernard Laidlaw

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