The Economist on the Japan-Australia agreement

The Economist this week weighs in on the Japan-Australia Security Declaration, the main point of which can be found halfway into the article: “…The louder the denials from both sides, the more evident is the main catalyst for the security pact: the rise of China.”

It’s hard to deny that China’s rise loomed large over security talks between Japan and Australia this week, but then China’s emergence looms large over every discussion of Asia, and will continue to do so for the indefinite future. As I argued in this post, the joint declaration muddies rather than clarifies the regional balance of power, because no observer can exclude the extensive economic ties both Australia and Japan have with China. There is no indication of what either party would do in a crisis involving China. In short, making too big a deal out of a paper agreement is a mistake. Is it an important agreement on paper, especially for Japan? Indubitably. Does it transform the region in a stroke? Hardly.

I find the article’s comments on Japan interesting, but flawed:

As for Mr Abe, the pact is of a piece with a more robust foreign policy for Japan that was begun by his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. Before sending troops to Iraq, Mr Koizumi had also dispatched supply ships from Japan’s so-called Self-Defence Forces to the Indian Ocean to help with the war in Afghanistan in 2001.

Since he came to office last September, Mr Abe has redoubled Mr Koizumi’s commitment to Japan’s alliance with the United States, but wants to do more than just shelter under America’s wing. He has pushed for faster deployment of missile-defence systems in the face of North Korean provocation. He has turned the Japanese Defence Agency into a full ministry, with a seat in the cabinet. And he wants the pacifist article nine of the constitution to be revised. Mr Abe has sought a new partnership with India, while building security ties with South-East Asia.

It all amounts to a strategy of balancing China’s geopolitical reach: Japan, in other words, is not about to roll on its back to let China be the region’s top dog. Mr Abe’s domestic ineptitude may mean a short term in office, as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner face crucial elections for parliament’s upper house in July. Even if so, Japan’s emerging regional posture is likely to survive him.

I think one can just easily find examples from Abe’s tenure that show how Japan is still a long way from becoming more assertive in anything but rhetoric.

I have no doubt that the Japanese government’s rhetoric has changed. The prime minister and members of his cabinet are much more inclined to talk about Japan’s actively contributing to resolving regional and global problems, in a much more assertive way than earlier governments. A recent example is this recent speech by Foreign Minister Aso, which borrows the US strategic concept of the “arc of instability” to outline a role for Japan.

At the same time, however, there are many examples that suggest that Japan’s actions — and the legal framework to act– do not yet match the ambitious rhetoric. One could point to the twice-delayed 2 + 2 meeting of the US-Japan Security Consultative Committee, the kerfuffle surrounding Defense Minister Kyuma’s (and Aso’s) remarks about US policy in Iraq — oh, and the six-party agreement that has left Japan more or less isolated in the multilateral effort to disarm North Korea. And then there’s the fact that Japan’s defense budget continues to be constrained by demands for budgetary restraint. And the continuing difficulty in implementing the April 2006 agreement on the realignment of US forces in Japan. And how about the backlash to Abe’s comments on the comfort women issue, which appears to have undermined the initial positive steps achieved by Abe in relations with Korea and China.

Even the examples cited by the Economist to support its arguments have problems. The elevation of the Defense Agency to full ministry status? Long planned — Koizumi submitted legislation in early 2006 — but I guess Abe deserves credit for guiding it to passage. Abe wants Article 9 revised? OK, but he first needs to pass a national referendum law, and then convince not only his own party, not only the opposition but also the Japanese public that his vision of post-pacifist Japanese security policy should be written into the constitution. (And what is his concrete vision anyway?) That’s without even considering whether his faltering government will last long enough to see the national referendum law to passage, let alone a revised constitution.

And then there’s this point: “Japan, in other words, is not about to roll on its back to let China be the region’s top dog.” I’m not altogether sure there’s anything anyone can do to prevent this outcome, least of all Japan, which despite it’s economic recovery remains poorly governed and insecure. The best that the region’s powers — not least the US, Japan, and Australia — can do is to shape the regional environment so that China is convinced to choose cooperation over antagonism. Does Abe realize this, or is he listening to Nakagawa Shoichi instead?

Meanwhile, a step like this report of enhanced cooperation between the US, Japan, India, and Australia — without commensurate efforts to calm Chinese fears of encirclement — would be disastrous at this stage. Every country in the region needs to think carefully about the consequences of its decisions in the region; when the US and Japan urge China to be more transparent about its security decision making, they must be equally transparent about their own decision making in the region.

So the US, Australia, Japan, India and any and all comers are free to talk amongst themselves, but they better make sure to talk clearly and frequently with China, because for all the threatening signals, there are plenty of signs of cooperation — and not just in economics, as this post by the Arms Control Otaku about Chinese PKO contributions suggests — that cannot be dismissed lightly.

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