The agreement, available at MOFA’s website here, is as modest as the initial news reports have suggested. The concrete elements are all well within the prevailing constraints of Japanese security policy, and the agreement bears no resemblance to the US-Japan alliance, with its open-ended commitment on the part of the US to defend Japan.
But the value of the agreement is in its modesty. In particular, Japan needs to develop the habits of cooperating with partners other than the US. Australia, as a regional power with (limited) global reach, can help enhance Japan’s ability to contribute to the missions outlined in the agreement, including maritime security, PKO, and humanitarian relief — without the baggage that comes with security cooperation with the US, not to mention the thorny issues surrounding US bases in Japan.
At the same time, though, as I mentioned in this post, it is important not to overestimate the importance of this agreement. Paul Kelly, writing at the website of The Australian, provides one example of letting rhetoric run away from reality. Japan is normalizing, yes, but it is hardly a linear process — nor is it clear to exactly the ends to which Japan’s “normalization” is aimed. He wrote, “Japan is in the process of becoming one of Australia’s closest security partners. Nobody should have any illusions about the consequences. To believe this new agreement is a minor matter is to miss its import entirely.”
But to accept Kelly’s argument means accepting that hidden in the terms of this agreement is the core of a trilateral maritime alliance between Japan, Australia, and the US — and accepting that Australia has chosen Japan over China. To the first point, I wonder if Kelly has watched the tortuous process of reforming the US-Japan alliance, which is strewn with seemingly ambitious agreements that proved hollow. And to the second, has Australia actually chosen Japan over China?
Kelly answers his own question: “…Australia is being sucked into the politics of a more complex Asia.”
In other words, this agreement — while perhaps an important milestone in the process of Japan’s becoming a “normal” country — is but another detail complicating the Asian balance of power, rather than clarifying it.