Pacific Powers Face China’s Rise
Japan and Australia signed a major defense treaty last Thursday, a historic move for Japan toward furthering its self defense, though there is much more to be done.
Though the details are quite vague, the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) aims to increase the capacity for military cooperation between Japan and Australia though expanded joint exercises, rapid response capabilities, and fewer restrictions on weapons and supply shipments. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the agreement will “contribute to a secure and stable Indo-Pacific,” and marks a “pivotal moment for Australia and Japan.” Morrison signed the treaty with his Japanese counterpart, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, during a virtual conference. Kishida echoed Morrison’s sentiments and called the deal “a landmark instrument which will elevate security cooperation between the nations to new heights.”
The RAA is the culmination of more than a year of negotiations between the two nations over the course of China’s military buildup and more aggressive actions in the South China Sea. Sue Windybank, a commissioning editor for the Centre for Independent Studies, a Sydney-based think tank, told The American Conservative the RAA, “should have been done and dusted years ago,” but she is pleased that Japan and Australia are working together to balance against China in the region. She continued:
2021 will go down in history as the year that both Australia and Japan crossed a strategic rubicon in the face of China’s relentless harassment of Japan in the Senkakus, on the one hand, plus the PRC’s ongoing economic coercion against Australia on the other.
For Japan, this is only the second military agreement of its kind since the end of the Second World War and the ratification of the 1946 Peace Constitution—mostly written by American civilian officials during the post-war occupation—as its Article 9 provisions renounce Japan’s right to wage war and maintain a standing military. The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, signed by Japan and the U.S. in 1960, commits the two nations to mutually defend one another if either comes under attack and allows the U.S. to construct military bases on Japanese soil. The 1960 treaty gave the Japanese more equal footing in the alliance, amending the previous security treaty signed in 1951 alongside the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the bow that wrapped up postwar diplomacy in the Pacific theater.
Putting the screws to the Japanese nation’s ability to defend itself in the wake of the devastation of the Second World War may have made sense for a period of time. Extend those limitations for more than 70 years, however, and the result is a country that still relies on foreign powers for its defense.
In large part, the United States has footed this bill. After all, it was the U.S. that put the Article 9 restraints on Japan in the first place. Relying on this U.S. commitment, Japan was able to create the second-largest economy in the world—a position it held for several decades before China’s gross domestic product surpassed it in 2010. But, with even more to lose than ever before, the Japanese nation still felt comfortable wrapped in the security blanket the United States provided, spending less than 1 percent of its GDP every year on defense since 1960; it significantly increased spending in 2020 by expending .996 percent of its GDP on defense. This minimal expansion in Japan’s military budget was reported by the corporate press as a “surge” in defense spending.
Japan seems to have realized that the U.S., as seen in its protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other forays in the Middle East, is rarely capable of achieving the results it desires when the rubber meets the road and the bullets start flying. This, in part, explains the aforementioned increase in defense outlays, though Japan ought to be spending much more to establish a proper navy and air force.
Australia has also noticed the waning power and capabilities of the U.S. military. Windybank said that while the U.S. currently remains a crucial security partner in the Indo-Pacific, “the RAA can also be seen hedge against concerns in Canberra and Tokyo about U.S. reliability.”
It is intended to send a message to Washington that Australia and Japan are prepared to bear a bigger share of the deterrence burden to counter China’s bid for regional hegemony, with the aim of locking in continued U.S. engagement in the region.
But why pay for your own defense when others might be willing to do it for you? In June of last year, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi encouraged European Union member states to establish a larger presence in Asia and pursue greater defense cooperation with Japan. The only problem, of course, is that the E.U. has also been freeloading off of U.S. defense dollars as well.
Certainly, a more reasonable and prudent step is for Japan to pursue more military cooperation with allies in the region on more mutual footing, rather than increasing its security dependence on powers it invites into its backyard. The RAA seems to do just that, and “symbolises the (welcome) slow-but-steady normalisation of Japan’s security posture- a gradual loosening of its own self-imposed restrictions on its external engagement,” Windybank told TAC. Furthermore, it possibly foretells further defense commitments between the Quad—Japan, Australia, India, and the U.S.
Don’t expect China to take this burgeoning security relationship lying down, however, National Chengchi University Professor Kerry Gershaneck told TAC.
Beijing will focus its massive Political Warfare apparatus on undermining the expanding Japan-Australia security relationship, as it has done for many years to subvert the Japan-U.S. security alliance. Specifically, the Chinese Communist Party will vector a concept it calls The Three Warfares (Psychological Warfare, Media Warfare, and Legal Warfare) against the evolving JN-AUS relationship. Specific actions it will take will include standard propaganda and disinformation assaults; the building of United Fronts with pro-CCP (or simply willfully ignorant) institutions in each country; co-option of elites such as elected officials, academics, and business leaders to oppose the security relationship; economic enticement and coercion; and protests within Australia and Japan that will likely include violent attacks.
Gershaneck added that China will likely continue to “refine and expand its military threats and intimidation against Japan and Australia,” such as more Gray Zone operations and military incursions into Japanese territory and Oceania.
But Japan should be putting much more money where its mouth is if we are to believe its claims that China poses an existential threat.
This piece has been updated to include comments from Kerry Gershaneck.