What Australia will do with Japan
6 Dec 2013|

aus113-LTo see what Tony Abbott might do with Shinzo Abe, look at what John Howard built with Shinzo Abe. The new Liberal Prime Minister in Australia can draw strongly on the lessons of Australia’s previous Liberal PM in approaching Japan’s LDP leader, because Howard engaged Abe on both policy and values.

Under Howard, Australia formalised the security relationship with Japan and made it trilateral with the US. Howard didn’t start the process of defence and intelligence cooperation with Japan, but he brought various strands together and gave the public push so that during his government Japan rose to become Australia’s fourth most important security partner.

Howard said his Government’s most remarkable foreign policy achievement was ever-closer links with the US and, simultaneously, a booming relationship with China. Nearly as notable was what he did to enhance security cooperation with Japan and make explicit the linkage between the US-Japan and the US–Australia alliances.

My previous column argued that a Labor government wouldn’t have signed up to the tougher language on the East China Sea that Abbott has embraced. The other side of this argument is to see the different view that the Liberal Party under Howard developed about security ties with Japan and making the alliance trilateral. The Howard era offers context for Abbott telling Abe that Japan is Australia’s ‘best friend in Asia‘.

Abbott wasn’t straying too far from his briefing notes while pushing the expression of the sentiment just a notch too high. The DFAT country brief is warm while avoiding the ‘best friend’ trap: ‘The Australia-Japan partnership is our closest and most mature in the region, and is fundamentally important to both countries’ strategic and economic interests.’

Where things get interesting is to see how the approach that Howard and Abe shared on democracies in Asia may be coming through in the new Australian government’s discussion of values. See Abbott’s comment where he frames Australia’s approach to China’s Air Defence Identification Zone in terms of values as much as interests:

I think it’s important for Australia to stand up for its values. … where we think Australia’s values and interests have been compromised I think it’s important to speak our mind and we believe in freedom of navigation – navigation of the seas, navigation of the air – and I think there is a significant issue here, and that’s why it was important to call in the Chinese Ambassador and put a point of view to him.

Values and interests and growing habits of defence and intelligence cooperation enabled John Howard and Shinzo Abe to come together in March, 2007 to sign the Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. Howard was only stretching a little when said that the agreement meant Japan would have a closer security relationship with Australia than with any other country except the US.

One of the elements in the Howard approach to Asia was his enthusiasm for the ‘revolution’ in Japanese foreign policy and the work his government did to make the alliance trilateral. Here’s the recent column with my transcript of Alexander Downer’s off-the-cuff account of how Australia went about creating the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue and the blowback from China.

The first officials’ version of the Trilateral happened in 2002 and it stepped up to be ministerial in 2006.

The Trilateral and the Japan Security treaty were expressions of the vision Howard painted in 2005 in one of the key foreign policy speeches of his leadership. He named Japan, the US and Australia as the ‘three great Pacific democracies’. This seems tough on Canada, which has been doing democracy in the Pacific a lot longer than Japan. Perhaps Canada just isn’t ‘great’ enough. (And don’t even ask about New Zealand.) In that speech, Howard was already talking up the partnership with Tokyo, putting the third link into the existing alliances between the US and Japan, and the US and Australia: ‘Our trilateral security dialogue has added a new dimension to the value all sides place on alliance relationships.’

The shift in the equation, according to Howard, was in Japan’s thinking: ‘This quiet revolution in Japan’s external policy, one which Australia has long encouraged, is a welcome sign of a more confident Japan assuming its rightful place in the world and in our region.’ Howard was using Abe’s lines even before Abe had his first go as PM.

Japan’s quiet revolution was matched by a gradual transformation of Australia’s military and intelligence engagement. The Security Declaration that Abe and Howard signed in 2007 was the expression of a defence structure that was already in place. The document was stating an existing reality when its first paragraph affirmed ‘the strategic partnership between Australia and Japan.’

To see the gap between Liberal and Labor, bear in mind that at the time the Security treaty was signed, the then Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, drew a line in the sand by stating there should be no step beyond the Declaration to a full defence pact with Japan: ‘To do so at this stage may unnecessarily tie our security interests to the vicissitudes of an unknown security policy future in North East Asia’. When Rudd took office at the end of 2007 he stepped away from the Asia democracies language used by Howard and Abe and refused to expand the Trilateral to bring in India. Labor in power didn’t retreat from what Howard formalised with Japan, but neither did it push the accelerator.

Whatever the regional arguments about values, the growing closeness of Australia’s security ties with Japan has changed the nature of the relationship. It’s worth emphasising the point that Howard was heightening the understanding and formal expression of what Australia was already doing with Japan rather than making it happen. The best expression of where the relationship had reached, just before the Security Declaration was signed, was given in this 2006 paper by one of the best in the business, Professor Des Ball. He rated Japan as Australia’s fourth most important security partner, saying Australia’s security cooperation had intensified and expanded to the point where Japan ranked behind only the US, UK and New Zealand.

The Howard history shapes the Abbott government’s thinking about the trilateral alliance and Northeast Asia. In the history wars, the Liberal Party claims ownership of both strands of the relationship with Japan—building first the economic and then the security partnerships. On this history battlefield, Labor lays claim to China.

In using both values and interests arguments, Tony Abbott is remarking a partnership with Abe that Howard built the first time round. And in analysing that Japan continuity, it’s worth noting that the official who was Howard’s foreign policy adviser in 2007, Andrew Shearer, is now back in the PM’s office as Abbott’s national security adviser.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of DFAT.