Japan, Australia, and the Rejigging of Asia-Pacific Alliances

The frame of relationships that exist in East Asia today was  set around 70-years ago. It needs review.

Then and Now

In the wake of the cataclysmic Second World War and subsequent San Francisco Treaty (1951), when the US was undisputed master of the world, China divided and excluded, Korea divided and at war, Japan divided (Okinawa severed from it) and occupied, and the apparatus of occupation, bases, and US hegemony was unquestioned and seen to be crucial to maintaining regional and global “security.” 

The economic underpinnings of that system are now rudely shaken. The United States, then about half of global GDP, is now 16 per cent (in “purchasing power parity” or PPP terms)  and expected to decline to 12 per cent by 2050 while China, already (2016) 18 per cent, has grown by an astounding fifteen times in the two decades from 1995, and the OECD expects this to continue, to reach about 27 per cent during the 2030s before slowly declining to around 20 per cent in 2060.” Chinese GDP, one-quarter that of Japan in 1991, surpassed it in 2001 and trebled (or even quadrupled) it in 2018.  Late in 2020 the IMF declared China had become the world’s biggest economy, $24.2 trillion to the US’s $20.8 trillion, with the gap widening. The alliance system as a design to preserve US hegemony looks increasingly incongruous.

The shift in relative weight between Japan, the US and China, and the mounting evidence that the two centuries of Anglo-Saxon hegemony on which Japan has staked its future for more than half a century may be coming to an end, challenges Japan. The more that the United States grows feeble and flounders, the more that doubt spreads as to the wisdom of Japan’s entrusting the national destiny to a sometime superstate now in evident decline.  

Post-1945 leaders from Hirohito (emperor, 1926-1989) to Abe (Prime Minister, 2006-7 and 2012-2020) fudged national sovereignty by adopting submission to the United States as core national policy, becoming its “client state” (or zokkoku). Submission to the global super-power sat uneasily with Japanese pride and identity but made some sense on the assumption that the US global dominance of 1951 would continue and that it would maintain a benevolent disposition towards Japan. The provision of a chain of military bases throughout the Japanese archipelago seemed a modest price to pay for Japan’s privileged position within the US-dominated world system. 

Over time the constitutional pacifist Japan became world No 8 on the scale of military power, spending around $50 billion annually on weapons and weapons systems. Its 247,000-strong military is larger than the UK, Germany, or France. It also subsidizes the Pentagon to the tune of almost $7 billion annually (as of 2016),  accommodating a major US military presence (over one hundred bases), from which US troops can be despatched at will to battlefronts from Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s and to the Middle East and North Africa since then. It now possesses fighter aircraft, battleships and submarines, even two aircraft carriers (coyly described as a “heli-carriers” being “only” 248 metres-long). And it cooperates with the US not only in “conventional” military programs but also in those designed to establish hegemonic control over space and cyber-space (the Ministry of Defense budgets for a 540-person cyber unit and 70-person space unit from 2021). 

Over the past decade, especially during the second Abe Shinzo government (2012-2020), purchases of US weaponry multiplied, the ban on arms exports was softened and the self-imposed expenditure limit of 1 per cent of GDP dropped (in March 2017). The ruling Liberal-Democratic Party now calls on government to double defence expenditure to reach the NATO (nominal) level of 2 per cent of GDP. Japan’s air force and navy are already second to none (save the United States itself) in the Western Pacific. Japan under Abe Shinzo de facto revised the constitution by the adoption in 2015 of legislation making possible recourse to war in support of an ally. One of the most recent initiatives of  the Abe government was to initiate moves towards acquiring weapons capable of striking missile launch sites in enemy territory “if an attack seemed imminent.” It would be hard to imagine any more egregious breach of the constitution’s Article 9 peace clause than such legitimation of pre-emptive attack.

No country has served the Trump cause so unconditionally and uncritically as Japan over these past three and a half years, with Abe Shinzo a favoured golf companion, phone buddy, customer for US arms sales, and “100 per cent supporter” of Trumpian “America-First” policies. Prior to the US presidential election of 2016, Japan had been close to the Hillary Clinton camp but from the moment of the Trump triumph it shifted quickly. As the Trump-Biden contest approached resolution late in 2020, the Government of Japan was undoubtedly working to adjust once again. But there were also larger schemes afoot. Might it be time for a comprehensive rejigging of the alliance system?

  • Two? Three? Four? Or More?

Paid much less attention than it warrants, the Japan-Australia relationship has for decades been steadily evolving in the direction of comprehensive cooperation and alliance. The two US-tied, sometime bitter enemy, Western Pacific powers grow close. Without debate, and almost it seems without publicity, the two seek to tighten their exclusive bilateral security relations with the US by making them trilateral, or quadrilateral, building a multinational NATO-esque military alliance to shore up US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region. The vision originally associated with Dick Cheney (under George W. Bush, president 2001-2009) of an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” encircling and constraining China becomes widely accepted in Japanese and Australian defense circles and the bilateral defense relationship an increasingly institutionalized and regular part of it. 

Australia normalized commercial relations with Japan in 1957, upgraded the relationship to one of amity in 1977. Promoted by governments and oppositions alike since then, it has flourished. Labour’s Prime Minister (Bob) Hawke [Prime Minister 1983-1991] told members of parliament in Tokyo in 1990 that Japan should become 

“more forthcoming, more creative, more outspoken than it has been in the past,” 

and that:

“… the days are gone when Japan’s international political influence can or should lag far behind its economic strength and economic interests. The power of your economy, strength of your democracy, the talents of your people, entitle you to a place of leadership as of right.”

Notable in the Hawke view, and similarly articulated by subsequent Australian government heads, is the absence of any reference to Japan’s peace constitution. It appeared to be taken for granted that Japan, although a constitutional peace state, should continue on the path to becoming a military great power. Japan’s constitutional proscription is generally seen in Australia as an obstacle to be overcome rather than an aspiration to be declared to the world. 

John Howard, Prime Minister from 1996 to 2007, went on record even before he took office as favouring a tripartite defence relationship involving Australia, the US, and Japan, with Japan becoming a major regional military force. He was even willing to sign a full-scale alliance treaty. Vice-President Dick Cheney, on his February 2007 visit to Australia and Japan urged cooperation on both governments, especially the reinforcing of links between Japan’s Self-Defence Force and the Australian Defence Force, within the general frame of a geostrategic arc of containment of China, stretching from Japan to Australia and beyond to India. In Tokyo in March 2007 Howard signed with his Japanese counterpart a “Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation” that endorsed their shared “democratic values, a commitment to human rights, freedom and the rule of law.” Abe suggested to George W. Bush the formation of an Asia-Pacific Democratic League or “Strategic Dialogue” linking the arc of four, and spoke in essentially the same vein when addressing the Indian parliament in August 2007. High-level (“Two Plus Two” (Foreign and Defence Ministerial) meetings between Australia and Japan began in 2007 and have continued. However, the 2007 idea of a four-part alliance went no further at that time as India lost interest, ill-health forced Abe’s resignation, and political change in Australia saw the advent of a Kevin Rudd government (2007-2010) keen to improve relations with China.   

The agenda for Abe Shinzo’s second term, (December 2012 to September 2020) was laid down just months before he resumed Prime Ministerial office in December 2012. The (US) Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) admonished Japan to think carefully about what would be required if it wanted to remain a “tier-one” nation, calling for it to “stand shoulder-to-shoulder” with the US, be prepared to send naval groups to the Persian Gulf or the South China Sea, relax restrictions on arms exports, increase its defence budget and military personnel numbers, resume its commitment to civil nuclear power, press ahead with construction of new base facilities for the US in Okinawa, Guam, and the Mariana Islands and revise either its constitution or the way it is interpreted so as to facilitate “collective security.” Once in office, Abe hastened to Washington to make clear his determination to remain in “tier-one.” While continuing to perform Japanese nationalism, thenceforth in essence he negated it, attaching priority to carrying out Japan’s obligations to the United States. 

In July 2014 Australia’s Tony Abbott (Prime Minister 2013-2015) and Japan’s Abe Shinzo upgraded the relationship to the unique category of “special strategic.” In 2017, as the Donald Trump regime took over in Washington, various formula began to be debated. In September, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop spoke of an emerging US-India-Japan-Australia “quadrilateral dialogue” that would be founded on “respect for international law and the rules-based order.” 

In the post-Cold War disposition Australia cooperated with Japan in US-led “coalition of the willing” operations in the Indian Ocean, Iraq and Afghanistan, in UN peace-keeping operations in Cambodia and East Timor, in US-led South China Sea and Persian Gulf patrols, and in so-called “UN-patrols” out of the US Airforce Kadena base in Okinawa to enforce UN-imposed sanctions on North Korea. From 2016 the Marine Corps has been rotating its Pacific forces through northern Australia on a regular basis, effectively adding Darwin to its global empire of bases, a mini-Okinawa. Australian Air Force crews cooperate in combat drill exercises (“Bushido Guardian 19”) with Japan’s Self Defense Forces in northern Hokkaido. Two Self Defense Force planes (and small contingents of service personnel) joined the international effort to help combat bush fires in Australia early in 2020. 

In Japan, over its two 21st century terms (2006-7 and 2012-2020) Abe’s government clung to a subaltern status within the American alliance. While on the one hand an unconditional supporter of the Trump agenda, on the other Abe was a strong proponent of neo-nationalist posturing and historical revisionism. Grasping the baton of change of regime in October 2020, Suga Yoshihide declared that his role as Prime Minister would be to further the Abe agenda, of which anyway he had been principal manager for nearly eight years. Whatever verbal formula be adopted it was clear that Suga’s Japan, like Abe’s, would insist on US hegemony and block bilateral or multilateral arrangements that would belittle it.

All four Quad parties insist on their “respect for international law,” but it functions at the rhetorical rather than the substantive level. None of the four contemplated calling the United States to order or took exception to its refusal to be bound  by any law. None protested at the US attacks on the International Criminal Court or at US war crimes including torture, assassination and military interventions not authorized by the UN (and therefore acts of aggression). International law was not to constrain the hegemon but to discipline states that had the temerity to challenge it. Both Australia and Japan put fidelity to the US above any adherence to the law and turned a blind eye to US lawlessness and war-addiction. 

  • Pulling the Strings: Pompeo 2020

In 2020 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo presented the US design to consolidate existing cooperative agreements into “a true security framework,” turning the de facto three-sided alliance of today into a four-sided “Quadrilateral” or “Quad.” India, having dropped out of the project in its first form (2007) was back, in part at least spurred by the border clashes with China earlier in the year. The Quad would stand against the Chinese Communist Party’s “exploitation, corruption, and coercion … in the south, in the East China Sea, the Mekong, the Himalayas, the Taiwan Straits.” Other US government spokesmen referred to a second tier – countries such as South Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam – that might constitute junior partners in the contest for “the soul of the world.”

Japan’s Kishi Nobuo and Australia’s Linda Reynolds pledged their support for the Pompeo proposal and their commitment to further developing the defense relationship “based on shared values and forged through times of shared challenge.” The awkward, even slightly bizarre, reference to “shared challenge” suggested desire on both sides to avoid reference to the hostilities that formerly defined the relationship.

The Australian commitment to the notion of a China-containing, four part “Quad” alliance linking it to the United States, Japan and India has been criticized on various grounds, not least the centrality assigned to the United States,  but the direction of bilateral Japanese and Australian policy over several decades towards deeper and closer links, heading towards an eventual alliance, is rarely questioned. There was little surprise when Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison acclaimed Japanese Prime Minister [2012-2020] Abe as Asia’s elder statesman, upon whose “real wisdom” he, and Australia, could rely. Morrison and his retinue can be expected to continue looking for guidance from the Suga government that took over in Japan in September 2020, just as Suga in turn can be expected to continue to seek direction from whoever emerges in Washington as president following November’s election.. 

The prospects for the Quad, however, look uncertain. The inclusion of South Korea, surely a key country in any Asia-Pacific security frame, only as an afterthought and in insulting second-tier role under Japan and Australia, was an obvious weakness. Japan’s hostility to the sort of Korean peninsula peace process the Moon government is known to favor made cooperation unlikely. South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa declared that her country “had no interest in participating in a US-led structural alliance in the Indo-Pacific.” 

However, with the announcement that the naval forces of all four Quad states (the Maritime Self-Defence Force in Japan’s case) were to meet for the first time for war games (“Malabar 2020”) in the Indian Ocean in November 2020, the China containment project was certainly not to be ignored, even if India’s membership of the Quad is surely different in character from that of the two US client states of Japan and Australia, and it remains to be seen to what extent it will engage in NATO-like military alliance under  United States direction. 

“Values”

 The grand “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” originally proposed by Prime Minister Abe in 2007 was to be a community of value, backed by a “Dietmembers Association for the Promotion of Values Diplomacy.” However, the rhetoric of “shared values” offered no formula for resolving disputes over memory, identity and history such as  continue to complicate relations between Japan and other former combatant countries including Australia. Few in Australia, for example, could be expected to share the commitment on the Japanese side to the Shinto (or perhaps “neo-Shinto”) world view even though it is  professed by fourteen out of the twenty members of the Suga government (and by a slightly higher proportion of the Abe government that preceded it). It was the Shinto belief in the unique and superior character of the Japanese people concentrated in the emperor for which Japan went to war with the world just two generations ago, and those with long memories watched with concern the fusion of politics and religion in the cult-like Shinto events surrounding the shift from Heisei to Reiwa imperial era in 2019.  

What committed Shintoists such as Abe and Suga seemed to find most offensive about the post-war Japanese state was its democratic, citizen-based, anti-militarist qualities and its admission of responsibility for war and crimes of war by the pre-war and wartime state. To them, reference to the mass abduction and rape of women throughout Asia, the so-called “comfort women” system, in the 1930s and 1940s, is an intolerable affront. In January 2007, when the US House of Representatives adopted Resolution 121 calling on Japan to “formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility” for the “comfort women” system in Japan-dominated Asia in the 1930s and 1940s, Congress referred to it as “one of the greatest crimes of human trafficking” and similar resolutions were adopted by the European Parliament and by the lower houses of the Dutch and Canadian parliaments, Abe first called it “regrettable,” Then, under mounting international pressure he declared his “deep-hearted sympathies the people who had to serve as Comfort Women were placed in extreme hardships” and “apologies for the fact that they were placed in that sort of circumstance.” However, he addressed himself not to the women victims, whom he refused to meet, but to President George W. Bush, standing beside him at Camp David, and his words were carefully chosen to satisfy US demands while evading any admission of state responsibility. 

The embodiment of the values that Abe and his Shintoist peers want to restore is Kishi Nobusuke, his own grandfather, a key planner of Japan’s empire in the 1930s, member of Tojo Hideki’s wartime cabinet and for three years an unindicted Class “A” war criminal before becoming Prime Minister between 1957 and 1960. In other words, while proclaiming democracy, human rights, and rule of law as values supposedly shared with the US, Australia, and India, Abe was simultaneously committed to unique Shinto (neo-Shinto) values at odds with basic human rights and the rule of law.. 

Restoration of the central state role played by Yasukuni shrine in pre-war emperor-centred militarism and fascism is also a cause dear to Japan’s contemporary Shintoists. It is also, however, a sensitive issue for the states that suffered under Japanese Shinto militarism. Abe avoided visiting the shrine while in office in 2006-7, but revisited on 15 August 2012, just before resuming office and again in December 2013, while Prime Minister, drawing a rebuke on this latter occasion to the effect that “the United States is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbours.” Smarting, he stayed away from Yasukuni for the remaining seven-plus years of his term of office, presumably to honour a promise reluctantly exacted from him. No sooner did he resign from office in September 2020, however, than he made up for it by visiting Yasukuni twice in close succession, to “inform the spirits of his resignation” as he put it.

Apart from Shinto, the values that underpin the present-day Japanese state system include, crucially and paradoxically, the denial of its own sovereignty. The security treaty with the United States (1951, revised 1960) is in practice a higher charter than the constitution of Japan. 21st century Japanese politics remains torn by the contradiction between formal institutional democracy and popular sovereignty on the one hand and fidelity to the US on the other. Client State servility towards the US is of course far from being unique to Japan. What is distinctive, however, is that Japan’s basic framework of state was designed and set in place by the US at a time when its occupation forces were running Japan following victory in  war (1945-1952). Till the Japanese people regain sovereignty the country can scarcely claim commitment to “universal” values. 

Conclusion

During the seven years eight months of his second term government Abe slowly modified his earlier pledges to liquidate the post-war, American-granted regime and comprehensively revising the constitution to reflect the Shintoist, “beautiful,”  “new” and emperor-centred Japan and paid more attention to the agenda prescribed for him in Washington, including unqualified support (“100% shiji”) for the Trump “America First” agenda. Unable to resolve the contradiction between the two, he concentrated instead on widening state prerogatives, circumscribing citizen rights, reinforcing national security, and re-centring the state around the imperial institution and its sustaining Shinto myths of uniqueness and superiority. It was an awkward and improbable fusion, and one which Suga now commits himself to maintaining. Whether it be headed by Trump or Biden from January 2021, Washington will certainly encourage such policies of control and submission,

While its Shintoist character is generally reserved for its domestic base, Japan’s message for multiple audiences including the United Nations and the US Congress of commitment to universal principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law is widely accepted, there is in Japan itself a noteworthy critical, dissenting view. Prominent public intellectuals refer to contemporary Japan as an “extreme rightist” country, subject to a “fascism of indifference” in which the Japanese voters are like frogs in slowly heating fascist water, no longer law-governed or democratic but moving towards becoming “a dark society and a fascist state,” where a “fundamental corruption of politics” spreads through every nook and cranny of Japanese society, as it begins the “steep decline towards civilizational collapse.” One scholar argues that there is a close correlation between the emperor-centred Kokutai or national polity of pre-war (fascist) Japan and today’s US-dominated Japan, both polities absolutist and in time becoming exhausted, plunging Japan into existential crisis. While the Japanese state concentrates on maintaining its servile, client state dependence, Japan’s civil society struggles on many fronts to transform the polity and to substitute a peace, democracy and human rights-based order for the militarized alliance sytem.

The Quad, or within it the burgeoning Australia-Japan alliance, is a cause yet to be presented to the Australian (or, for that matter, the Japanese, American, or Indian) people, but it is a cause that has notable momentum. Despite the rhetoric of shared commitment to universal pricies, the Hindu supremacism of India, the neo-Shintoism of Japan or the crude  “America First” of the Trumpian United States are none of them universal. As or Japan, it is clear that the three prospective Quad partners have no time for the pacifist Japan of its constitution and instead encourage it to become a fully “normalized” military great power that would set aside its inhibitions and adopt a leading military posture within the US alliance and multinational, China-containing coalitions. Fourteen years ago, Desmond Ball wrote the following admonition on security relationships. It remains as apt now, in thc context of the emerging Quad, as it was then:

“The security relationship was spawned in secrecy. It was nurtured and shaped by particular agencies, such as the intelligence organizations and the Navies, and reflects their particular bureaucratic interests and perspectives … It has expanded through accumulation of essentially ad hoc responses to different global and regional developments. It has never been subject to comprehensive or systematic bureaucratic audit or informed public discussion.”

Let that informed public discussion begin.

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Gavan McCormack is emeritus professor of Australian National University, editor of the Asia-Pacific journal Japan Focus and author of many works on modern Japan and East Asia, which are commonly translated and published also in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean.

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