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Strategic softness

Print edition : Apr 06, 2007 T+T-

Japan and Australia have signed a security pact that steers clear of China's sensitivities.


GLOBALISATION is widely believed to have become the political creed of the post-Cold War era. Viewed in this perspective, inter-state politics today is about either cooperation or competition for the "benefits" of globalisation.

But old ideas of maintaining the balance of power among major countries have not been banished from the international stage. Nor has globalisation been accepted as the inevitable or unchangeable trend. "Global politics", allegedly devoid of the old-style conflicts between mutually exclusive blocs of countries, provides a smokescreen for the new games that individual nations play.

It is in this context that Japan and Australia signed a security pact on March 13 that managed to steer clear of the sensitivities of China, Japan's close neighbour and the pact's unstated but possible target. Far from denouncing the "security framework", Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said at a press conference in Beijing a couple of days later that he hoped to make his planned visit to Japan an "ice-thawing" event. Wen noted that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to Beijing last October had turned out to be an "ice-breaking" exercise.

There are three reasons for the Japan-Australia diplomatic feat. First, authoritative Japanese sources told this correspondent that the latest pact identified the security threats to be addressed as transnational issues and not as emanating from any one country. Prominent among these are terrorism, threats to maritime traffic and civil aviation, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. There is no old-style identification, either openly or through subtle hints, of China as the ideological "enemy" of the Australia-Japan team. Nor is China portrayed as a security threat in their proposed efforts to work together.

Asked why Japan and Australia have not thought of teaming up with China for a larger pact in this situation, Japanese sources spoke of their "concerns" over the "lack of transparency" about Beijing's ongoing "military build-up". For its part, Beijing invited Russia but not Japan to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation a few years ago, despite both being China's neighbours.

No less relevant is the fact that Australia and the officially pacifist Japan are both staunch military allies of the United States. Yet Canberra does not share the concerns expressed by Washington and Tokyo about Beijing's current "military build-up". This perhaps explains why Australia and Japan have not chosen to see China as the focal point of their new "security framework". Significant, indeed, is an assertion by Australian Prime Minister John Howard who maintained that Canberra's current equation with Washington over Beijing was one of "a different perspective" and "not just nuanced differences". Australia, as he had already indicated, would prefer peaceful coexistence, not confrontation, with China in order to reap the benefits of globalisation.

Japan, with its unresolved historical issues involving China, does not have the luxury of differing with the U.S. in this manner. Yet it suits Japan to have a new security pact with a China-friendly country like Australia. The long-standing and much-updated U.S.-Japan military alliance will, no doubt, remain a factor in China's strategic thinking. However, Japan has to pursue its current agenda of resurgence as a major power in the same neighbourhood as China, which remains on an upward trajectory with the potential to become a superpower over time.

The second and equally important reason for China's equanimity over the Japan-Australia pact is its avoidance of the Taiwan issue. The recent reinvigoration of the U.S.-Japan military alliance angered China because those two countries noted Taiwan as a security concern that should be resolved peacefully. As a non-sovereign territory, Taiwan belongs to China under the internationally recognised One-China principle.

The third matter of reassurance to China is that the Japan-Australia pact is not a military alliance involving joint troop deployment for combat operations. Opting for a soft framework, Australia and Japan have agreed only to "increase practical cooperation between [their] defence forces and other security-related agencies". The activities envisioned include joint exercises and training by the armed forces, exchanges of personnel, coordination to enhance border security through law enforcement, and cooperation for peace-keeping operations.

This agenda has led to some speculation about the possibility of combined combat-related operations by the two countries, but the document is worded so as to preclude war games. Japan's official pacifism, not yet revised despite some political intentions in that regard, and Australia's disinclination to join forces for any anti-China gamesmanship are the reasons for the soft framework. Of considerable interest to China, in this context, will be the perception of Western experts such as Peter Ennis and Richard Katz that "Japan has virtually no power projection capabilities" along the maritime zone off the coast of East Asia.

Often, though, even soft security pacts have a strategic rationale beyond their stated goals and modalities. The name of the main strategic game in "global politics" today is "engagement" as the enlightened "alternative" to the inter-state political and military confrontations of the Cold War era. Yet, the general consensus in international politics today is that a new world order is yet to replace the easy-to-understand "system" of East-West blocs that disappeared with the end of the Cold War.

An agreement of the kind now signed by Japan and Australia is a potential building block for any future security architecture in the greater East Asian region. Australia, Japan and the U.S. are already grouped together in a "trilateral strategic dialogue". Behind the scenes, Japan has been exploring the possibility of associating India in this dialogue.

In the short run, India is expected to weigh its options on the basis of its own priorities. One such priority relates to the stand that Japan and Australia may, jointly or independently, take on the issue of India's efforts to secure the nod of the Nuclear Suppliers Group for access to high-technology know-how and equipment for the peaceful use of atomic energy.

Japan and Australia are expected to take into account India's changing equation with the U.S., still their ally despite becoming a wounded superpower. More importantly, New Delhi's evolving rapprochement with Beijing will also figure in the calculations of both Japan and Australia.

As of writing, New Delhi, Tokyo and Washington have drawn up plans for their first-ever trilateral naval exercise off the coast of Japan in the second half of April. Also proposed is a purely bilateral India-U.S. naval exercise in Japanese waters as a prelude to the trilateral event.

These are essentially exploratory moves towards a possible new equation among India, Japan, and the U.S. It is too early to predict the outcome; in all likelihood it will depend considerably on the future of U.S. influence in the greater East Asian region.