Japan and Australia to take Perhaps the Final Big Step in the Relationship?

A very interesting development out of New York this morning (日). Japan and Australia, on the heels of the recent two-plus-two dialogue in Sydney where Japan’s foreign and defense ministers had to rush home admist the controversy over the Senkaku Islands with China, have agreed to further deepening of the strategic partnership, and have also committed themselves to making a breakthrough on the Economic Partnership Agreement which has been under negotiation for 5 years.

This would be a significant step for the bilateral relationship. Australia and Japan already have a ministerial “two-plus-two dialogue.” In fact Australia is the only nation other than the US to have such an arrangement with Japan. Japan’s two-plus-two dialogues with Vietnam and India are at the sub-ministerial level. Australia and Japan in the last few years have signed a Acquisitions and Cross-servicing Agreement (ACSA) and also an intelligence-sharing agreement. They have recently begun conducting bilateral military exercises together with the Nichi-gou Trident exercises in June this year. Japan’s SDF is also, after US Forces Japan, the most familiar with the Australian defense forces as the two countries have deepened military-level relations starting with the Cambodia UNPKO, and have comprehensively engaged with each other in regional peacekeeping, humanitarian and disaster relief,  and human security fields. Of course, the Australians were also the ones to protect the Japanese SDF in Iraq.
So, other than a formal alliance, which is unlikely due to Japan’s restrictions on the exercise of collective self-defense, and also the fact that alliances are no longer the weapon of choice for security partnerships, there was only a few areas left where the two countries can usefully collaborate in more depth than they do now. One such area is in the maritime domain, particularly around Anti-Submarine warfare (ASW). When the two countries held their first bilateral exercises recently they engaged in ASW exercises, something they have also done so with the US in trilateral exercises. Furthermore, there has been interesting discussion in the Australian press about the Japanese working with the Australians, perhaps in a joint partnership, to outfit the Royal Australian Navy with 12 submarines similar to the highly regarded Japanese diesel-electric mid-sized Soryuu submarine. We will see where that goes.

[Going, it is. One day after writing this Japan and Australia announce that they are seriously considering working together on finding a replacement for the troubled Collins-class submarines].

Two other areas are in regards to the economic partnership, and collaboration on the UN, including UN Security Council reform. Australia is currently competing for a non-permanent seat on the next installment of the UN Security Council, and Japan is sure to support this. Australia has after all supported Japan’s ascension to the UNSC as a permanent member after UNSC reform (if it ever takes place) since the early 1990s. In terms of the economic partnership, while it has been deepening over time without an EPA, particulary as Japan has invested much more in the Australian mineral resource economy recently (in part a response to Chinese investment in Australia), negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement lagged for some time. However, in the last year or so it would seem that the DPJ, perhaps using the TPP as a bait and switch approach to distract the anti-FTA elements at home, begun a new push for an EPA* with Australia. Certainly it seemed that the Japanese govenrment was more engaged than it had been in previous years, with the exception of a bit of activity when negotiations were first entered into in 2007. Of note in terms of this particular announcement, is that the last time an Economic Partnership Agreement was explicitly connected to the deepening of the strategic partnership in this way was when former Prime Minister Abe in 2007 basically told his own bureaucracy that an EPA with India would be agreed to and that it was to be done soon. And indeed it was soon settled and is now in force. It is within this context that we can perhaps understand the latest commitment, and it would not surprise me if we see an EPA between Australia and Japan, irrespective of what happens on the TPP, within the next two years.

* Japan doesn’t do “FTAs” as they see them as too narrow. They tend to go for wider “economic partnership agreements,” which put less emphasis on increasing the percentage of trade items where tariffs will not be applied (to be called an FTA this usually needs to be somewhere in the mid-90s (%)), in favour of economic engagement and agreements in areas wider than tariff liberalization.

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