Japan-Australia Cooperation: Middle Powers Rising In The Indo-Pacific – Analysis

China’s use of economic coercion, grey zone operations in the East and South China Seas, and threats to reunify Taiwan by force are part of a growing plethora of concerns that are linked to Japan, Australia and other like-minded countries adopting defence postures to what China itself has admitted is an explicit effort by China “to shape an ideological environment conducive to its rise and to counter Western values.”

To counter China’s revisionist intentions, on January 6th Japan and Australia in a virtual summit signed a reciprocal access agreement (RAA). The agreement places bilateral relations only second to each respective country’s alliance with the United States. It signals that Canberra and Tokyo see bilateral security cooperation critical to anchoring the United States into the broader Indo-Pacific. It also speaks to the importance of investing in security partnerships that complement, but also are independent from the United States.

The RAA is important for both partners to access each other’s territories for joint training and the deployment of resources such as troops, warships, and submarines. Simultaneously, it is an opportunity for Japan and Australia to further align their security, trade, and diplomatic policies in the Indo-Pacific. This will be consequential for harmonising foreign policy vis-à-vis Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Pacific Islands. This harmonisation will not be exclusive to bilateral cooperation; rather, it will be dependent on the regional and functional focus of various strategic imperatives.

For instance, Southeast Asia is a critical partner for Canberra and Tokyo. ASEAN centrality remains, however challenged, a critical ingredient to forging ahead a Free and Open Indo-Pacific region. Marginalising ASEAN would prove counterproductive to dealing with regional challenges such as territorial disputes in the South China Sea or non-traditional security challenges such as COVID-19, illegal fishing, piracy, and climate change.

Countering Chinese efforts to fracture ASEAN unity will require Tokyo and Canberra to align their policies towards Southeast Asia to strengthen its strategic autonomy. The RAA provides a platform for Tokyo and Canberra to integrate their foreign policies in the region such that they are more synergistic.

Concrete examples include harmonising pre-existing middle-power projects such as the Japan-Mekong Connectivity Initiative or Australia’s Partnerships for Recovery in ASEAN and Southeast Asia region.

Supporting ASEAN intra-regional integration through trade partnerships such as RCEP but also the expansion of the CPTPP is perhaps the best way to enhance its strategic autonomy. Japan and Australia should proactively lobby eligible ASEAN states to join the CPTPP and or advocate for a TPP 2.0 that embraces the middle-class foreign policy agenda of the Biden administration, a critical future partner in any region-wide trade agreement. Here, PM Kishida’s new capitalism which focuses on ameliorating the economic prospects Japan’s middle class is a good starting point for discussions.

Canberra and Tokyo should also leverage the RAA agreement to enhance maritime domain awareness capabilities, inter-operability, search and rescue and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) coordination with ASEAN member states.

Pivoting to Oceania and the Indian Ocean, France, Canada, and New Zealand would be ideal partners for cooperation in the Pacific islands while Germany, France, and the UK maybe more suitable partners in the West Indian Ocean to deal with piracy, illegal fishing, and other emerging challenges.

The Pacific Islands need credible alternatives to Chinese BRI initiatives. Here, Japan, the U.S. and Australia efforts to finance the connection of a submarine internet cable to the Pacific island nation of Palau needs to be expanded to other Pacific Island countries.

From financing to governance to training, functional cooperation based on coordination of middle power comparative advantages needs to strengthen the Pacific Islands’ strategic autonomy. By active engagement of Australia and Japan with other partners in the region, they will enhance middle power autonomy, anchor the US into the region, and prevent Chinese hegemony from emerging in the Indo-Pacific.

The same is true for South Asian states from the Maldives to Sri Lanka to Bangladesh.

Superficially, Canberra and Tokyo’s RAA may seem new but at the Track 1.5 and Track 2 level, Australia and Japan have put in considerable effort to making the “Pacific Ocean” a functional free and liberal economic order too.

To illustrate, Japan and Australia played prominent roles in the creation of Pacific Free Trade and Development (PACFTAD) in 1962. The Pacific Basin Economic Cooperation, otherwise, known as PBEC, fed ideas to ASEAN economic and finance ministers to deregulate their markets beginning in the 1980s and finally the Pacific Economic Cooperation Dialogue (PECC) to serve as the institutional forerunner cum advisory board to the creation of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in 1989.

In the post-Cold War period, Australia and Japan played a pivotal role in the shaping and reshaping of ASEAN, more than the regional organization cares to admit.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union left the region without a proper platform to engage in “defensive diplomacy”. This led to the concept of “Cooperative Security” in which all sides agreed not to see the other as an “enemy” by first to initiating confidence building measures (CBMs) and in disclosing more information of each country’s defense/military doctrine, ideally through White Papers.

To manage this vacuum, Japan encouraged the ten member states of ASEAN to transform the ASEAN Post Ministerial Dialogue in 1992 to form what would later be called the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Japanese and Australian scholars managed to convince the semi-governmental think tanks, known as the Consortium of Security Cooperation in Asia-Pacific (CSCAP), that were closest to their respective Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Foreign and Defense Ministers to formally adopt and launch the ARF in 1994, which is now comprised of 26 member states, including all the nuclear powers in the region.

With the collapse of 90 per cent of the fisheries in the 12 nautical miles’ territorial waters of China in recent years, more and more illegal unregulated unreported (IUU) fishing has made their way to as far as the seas in Natuna Island, Indonesia. To counter, the US and Indonesia have launched a joint training centre in Batam to the tune of USD 3.6 million which is also a triangular economic cooperation plan of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. Australia and Japan through the RAA and its Southeast Asian partners can gain immensely from this initiative, as China’s six nuclear submarines will find it difficult to slip through the shallow Straits of Malacca without being detected upon their ports.

To this end, Japan has made sizable investments into Nicobar Island in the Indian Ocean, which lies not too far from the northern mouth of the Straits of Malacca. The goal is to lengthen the runway to allow PSC-8 Poseidon, which can do a sweep of the sea floor to detect submarines.

With the advent of AUKUS and the RAA, the significance of ARF’s “Defensive Diplomacy” has weakened. The region remains locked in confidence building initiatives attempting to socialize China by participating in preventive diplomacy, peacekeeping, and maritime cooperation. ARF will continue to diminish in strategic value, as Canberra and Tokyo have grown impatient with its ability to dissuade China from revisionist behaviour and choose regionally focused, functional cooperation based on coordinating middle power comparative advantages and thus ensuring middle power autonomy, anchoring the US into the region, and preventing Chinese hegemony from emerging.