Is the time right for Australia and Japan to become formal allies?

21 September 2018

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Should Australia and Japan sign a defence treaty to challenge China’s military rise? Luke Courtois argues that such a move would send a very poor signal to China, destabilising an already tense Asia-Pacific region.

In November 2018, Shinzo Abe is expected to become the first Japanese Prime Minister to visit Darwin, 75 years after Japan bombed the Australian city in World War II. This follows a steady increase in defence cooperation between the two countries, with former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announcing in January 2018 that Japanese troops would conduct training exercises in Australia’s Northern Territory.

The idea of developing a defence alliance with Japan has gained traction in Australia. Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), has argued that Australia “should conclude a defence treaty with Japan.”

But whilst enhancing defence cooperation will benefit both states, Australia and Japan should not go down this road. This is because a defence alliance will increase the likelihood of confrontation between Australia, Japan, and China.

We may be concerned about China’s destabilising behaviour in our region, but we must think closely about what a defence alliance means. Defence alliances are signed between states that seek to align themselves against a common threat. For the Japanese, China constitutes a threat to the stability of the Asia-Pacific region, and Tokyo has stated that China’s increasing influence in the region must not be left unchecked. If Australia signs a defence alliance with Japan, it will demonstrate to China that we also perceive it to be a threat to our security and that we are prepared to defend Japan against China in any military conflict.

Is Australia prepared to confront China, and defend Japan against Chinese military aggression? Australian defence policymakers have avoided getting involved in maritime disputes in the South China and East China Seas for decades. Australia does not want to provoke China or give it the incentive to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy against it. China is Australia’s most important trading partner, and Australia relies on strong economic relations with China to sustain its economic growth.

Japan also has a difficult and dangerous relationship with China. Both states have come close to armed conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and history continues to influence China’s negative perception of Japan, fuelling nationalistic discourse.

Indeed, it is in Japan’s best interests to sustain positive relations with China. Ambiguity over US willingness to defend it against Chinese aggression means that Japan has a significant incentive to improve its relationship with China.

As an ally, Japan could be unreliable and prove to be of very little strategic value to Australia. Whilst an alliance would commit Japan to defend us against foreign enemies, Australia cannot be sure that Japan would ever come to our defence were we to face an attack by a foreign power.

Geography is another concern. Indeed, Australia and Japan are separated by thousands of miles. If Australia were invaded by a hostile power, this would have little strategic significance to Japan. That Japan is not a nuclear power further reduces the value of an alliance, because Japan will not give us the same level of security US nuclear weapons currently provide us.

The future of the region is also uncertain. China has demonstrated willingness to challenge the US by building military bases in the South China Sea and resisting Western efforts to isolate North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

However, China has also sought to cooperate with its Western counterparts. It has invited states to participate in its One Belt One Road Initiative. Therefore, there is scope for Australia to develop a more cooperative and beneficial relationship with China.

There are incentives for both states to form a defence alliance. They share common values and strategic interests in the region. They are both strong democracies and they seek to uphold the “rules-based global order” which has provided stability to our region since the Nixon Doctrine in 1972 when China accepted US supremacy in the Asia-Pacific. Australia and Japan are also concerned that China will undermine US hegemony.

A defence alliance may also benefit us because it could help reinforce US engagement in our region. It would show the US that its allies are committed to defending their interests, and willing to share the burden of defence spending. The US has supported enhanced relations between Australia and Japan since the creation of the Trilateral Security Dialogue in 2006. The US has encouraged Japan to modify its constitution so that Japanese troops can be deployed overseas. It is likely that enhanced bilateral partnership between Australia and Japan will attract significant US support.

With the United States failing to reassure its allies about its commitment to the Indo-Pacific region, it has become necessary for Australia to build stronger defence ties with like-minded partners, most notably Japan.

Yet, forming an alliance with Japan will put more pressure on an already tense region. China has repeatedly warned against the creation of new defence ties between states. An alliance could, therefore, create further instability, achieving the opposite of what Australia and Japan have sought to preserve: peace and stability in our region.

Luke Courtois is a third-year student studying International Security and Thai studies at the Australian National University. A previous intern at the Royal Thai Embassy in Canberra, his research interests include Australian Security and Peace and Conflict studies.

This article originally appeared in The Monsoon Project

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