The recent Australia-Japan security pact is the best example of how states are entering into partnerships to address non-traditional security issues while countering the growing assertiveness of their rival states in the region. No doubt, this security pact between Australia and Japan will intensify the ongoing geopolitical rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region as increasing security of one creates insecurity for other states in international relations which is known as the ‘security dilemma’.
Current Situation in the Indo-Pacific
The late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe originally proposed the concept of Indo-Pacific in 2007 under the banner of the “confluence of two oceans.” Geographically, the Indo-Pacific refers to the region between the Indian and Pacific Oceans that is interconnected. From a geostrategic point of view, the Indo-Pacific has been seen as a single area that spans the two oceans and is connected by the straits of Malacca, which is crucial for the transportation of energy and goods. The Indo-Pacific has become a theatre for geostrategic powerplay because of a couple of reasons. The first one is the growing influence of China in the region. And it has prompted the US to deploy its own initiatives in a bid to offset the growing influence of China there, which is the second reason.
China has successfully established itself as a regional power over the last few decades. Its growing economic and military power has been a major concern for the US and its allies in the region. China is now striving to expand its dominance worldwide, making the Indo-Pacific very crucial for China. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been instrumental to expand its influence in the strategically significant Indo-Pacific. Under the BRI, China has been able to deepen its bilateral ties with the littoral states of the region by establishing new trade links, offering financial assistance, and disbursing a massive amount of aid. In addition, the Chinese defense budget has increased fourfold since 2007 and now it maintains the world’s largest blue water navy.
The US, in response, shifted its focus from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific under the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” (IPS) in 2017. It aims to maintain a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ and establish a ‘rule-based international order’ against Chinese aggressive behavior in the region. Such as Chinese claims in the South and East China Seas have brought international criticisms and prompted collective responses by forming alliances with like-minded states. The growing number of security alliances has been a major highlight in the Indo-Pacific. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as QUAD, along with AUKUS, ANZUS, and Five Eyes are the prominent alliances in the Indo-Pacific region. The recent security pact signed between Australia and Japan is a new addition to the existing framework to counter Chinese growing influence in the region. However, one big difference here is that the newly signed security pact is bilateral whereas the rest of them are multilateral in nature.
The Pact in the Changing Geopolitical Environment in the Indo-Pacific
On Oct. 22, 2022, during the annual Australia-Japan Leaders’ Meeting in Perth, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida signed a new bilateral security pact. This is essentially an update to a 15-year-old agreement between the two nations that was signed in 2007. The new security pact builds on a “reciprocal access agreement” that Kishida signed with then-Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in January 2022, which eliminates impediments to staging joint military drills in either nation. It signifies the deepening security cooperation between Australia and Japan, both of which share a common threat perception emanating from China. As Kishida stated the new security agreement had been developed in response to an “increasingly harsh strategic environment” in the region. Moreover, this was the fourth time that both leaders met since May. In 2014, the two countries upgraded their bilateral relations to a “Special Strategic Partnership.” On the occasion of signing the new security pact, the Australian Prime Minister told that “this landmark declaration sends a strong signal to the region of our strategic alignment.” Both leaders also asserted that the pact will act as a “compass” for security collaboration for the next ten years and more.
The newly signed security pact has multiple dimensions as it not only includes military-to-military cooperation, but also non-traditional security cooperations like in economy, energy, and environment. Under the pact, Australia and Japan will share more sensitive intelligence, along with joint military exercises between Australia’s armed forces and Japanese self-defense forces in Northern Australia. The security cooperation is crucial in the sense that, only in the last year, Japanese warplanes had to scramble 722 times in response to Chinese aircraft violating Japan’s territorial sovereignty repeatedly. Both leaders also expressed their commitment to nuclear disarmament which was originally an important component of the 2007 draft declaration. Now, the issue has been revamped under the fear of Russian nuclear strikes on Ukraine and North Korean missiles nearby Japan. Moreover, the deal has opened a new window of cooperation in cybersecurity between countries.
From an economic dimension, the agreement alludes to collaboration in “resisting economic coercion and disinformation,” which China is commonly accused of doing. China is accused of pursuing a ‘neo-techno nationalist’ policy and continuously favoring its own industry over others by violating the rule of law in doing international business.
Implications for Regional Geopolitics
This is the first time Japan has entered into a security pact other than the US which signifies that both countries are trying to assert regional partnership jointly without involving any outside powers. As Thomas Wilkins states that the two countries’ bilateral collaboration has been solidified as a “fixture” of their foreign, economic, and security policy. Moreover, similar to Article 3 of the ANZUS Treaty, Article 6 of the pact discusses mutual consultation on common dangers that may undermine national sovereignty and regional security interests, underscoring the close ties between the Australian and Japanese security communities. This pact also signals the breakout of Japan from post-war constitutional constraints. In addition to this agreement, Japan previously passed “Peace and Security Legislation” in 2015, which now permits Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to escort and protect military personnel from other countries that assist in defending Japan, as well as to use the right to collective self-defense in a situation where survival is at risk. But this was not possible when Australia and Japan signed the 2007 declaration. Although the pact does not mention China as a threat openly unlike Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), there is little doubt that the pact is aimed against Beijing. Recently, China signed a five-year-long security agreement with Solomon Island which is approximately 2,000 km to the northeast of Australia. No doubt, this newly signed pact will work as a template for more security cooperation at the bilateral level and strengthen existing security cooperation. Many have also raised the possibility of Japan joining “Five Eyes” on a continuation of this epoch-making agreement with Australia. Also from economic and energy security, this pact will help reduce Japanese dependency on China for energy and critical materials which have become very concerning issues for the contemporary world.
From the US perspective, this pact can be seen as complementary to the US’s ambition in the region under the umbrella of its Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS). Significantly, the security pact was signed a little over a week after the Biden administration released a new National Security Strategy which states China as its primary target despite devoting most of its resources to waging a proxy war in Ukraine. Not to mention, Australia and Japan are two crucial partners of the US in its competition against China. Not surprisingly, both leaders of Australia and Japan expressed their intent to maintain a “free and open Indo-Pacific” which is linked with US’s IPS. On the other hand, China has pointed out that the recently signed pact will only strengthen Washington’s position in the Indo-Pacific under the IPS. They argued that it will help the US to create a global intelligence-sharing network with its allies against China. Chinese experts have also criticized Australia and Japan for their willingness to be pawns of the US.
From a regional perspective, this pact will intensify the geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific and strengthen existing security alliances in the area with a common aim to counter China. Nonetheless, it may also hamper regional peace and stability as states will be more interested in competition rather than cooperation.
The security pact between Australia and Japan is a result of changing geopolitical environment in the Indo-Pacific. Japan, once solely dependent on external power for its protection, now boosting its defense budget and entering into bilateral security partnerships. This security agreement will intensify the regional geopolitical competition among powerful states in the region which may create security threats to regional peace and stability. On a positive note, this security pact may also work as a balancing tool that will deter China from taking an aggressive stance in the region.
[Photo by Cabinet Public Relations Office, Cabinet Secretariat, Japan, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Muhammad Estiak Hussian is a Research Analyst at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).