The emerging axis of democracy

Posted in Japan , United States | 14-Mar-07 | Author: Hisane Masaki| Source: Asia Times

TOKYO - In a move very likely to alarm China, Japan and Australia have signed a historic joint security declaration calling for closer cooperation on terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, disaster relief, and peacekeeping.

This is Japan's second bilateral security deal, the other being the Japan-US Security Treaty dating back about half a century. The Japan-Australia pact is seen by many observers as underscoring a looming US-Australia-Japan axis of democracy, primarily aimed at keeping in check China, a rapidly ascending military as well as economic power in the Asia-Pacific region.

Despite strong domestic criticism, both Tokyo and Canberra have strongly supported the US-led war in Iraq by dispatching troops there. The Japan-Australia security pact is seen by some as being partly aimed at diluting the widespread public impression in both countries that their leaders focus too much on their alliance with the US.

At their meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday evening, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Australian counterpart, John Howard, signed the security pact, which specifically calls for close intelligence sharing and joint military exercises for disaster relief and United Nations peacekeeping operations. The document also stipulates the establishment of so-called 'two plus two' ministerial security talks comprising foreign and defense ministers from the two countries, similar to those each already has with the US.

The two leaders also pledged in the joint declaration that they will coordinate policies over North Korea and cooperate in dealing with the threat of the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Japan and Australia are active participants in the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative aimed at preventing the smuggling of such weapons, missiles and parts.

An action plan on measures for cooperating on disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, and maritime and aviation security, as well as cracking down on international crime such as drug trafficking, was part of the deal. Nor were economics forgotten. Abe and Howard had agreed during telephone conversations last December to launch negotiations on a free-trade agreement; on Tuesday, they agreed to expedite those negotiations.

Since taking office last September, Abe has advocated a more assertive foreign policy and a stronger security alliance with the United States. He has also vowed to seek revisions of the post-World War II pacifist constitution to allow the nation to play a greater role in the international security arena. The Japan-Australia security pact also apparently reflects Canberra's desire to exert more influence with the security the region as well as its economy.

"Prime Minister Howard and I agreed that the joint declaration offers a framework for concretely stepping up security ties between our two countries," Abe told a joint press conference after the signing. Howard added: "The declaration ... is [a] further mark of the trust and cooperation between us."

In a meeting with Japanese Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma earlier in the day, Howard said there is no country with which Australia has closer relations than Japan, except the US, and stressed the importance of increased cooperation among the three countries. In addition to being close US allies, Japan and Australia are major market economies and democracies. The three countries share common strategic viewpoints, Japanese and Australian officials say.

Referring to the setting-up of the "two plus two" security talks of Japanese and Australian foreign and defense ministers, Howard also told Kyuma that Australia is engaged in a similar form of talks only with the US and Britain and stressed the importance of such dialogue.

In his meeting with Japanese leaders, Howard said he strongly backs Japan's tough stance on North Korea's abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s to train communist spies. Despite the recent deal on the North Korea nuclear standoff, Japan has refused to join the other participants in the six-party talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear-weapons program in offering energy aid to Pyongyang.

At the outset of the Japan-Australia security declaration, Abe and Howard reaffirmed that "the strategic partnership between Japan and Australia is based on democratic values, a commitment to human rights, freedom and the rule of law, as well as shared security interests, mutual respect, trust and deep friendship" and stated that they are committed to "the continuing development of their strategic partnership to reflect shared values and interests".

Security cooperation between Japan and Australia has been increasing in recent years. Australian forces were in charge of maintaining the security in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah, where some 600 Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (SDF) personnel were stationed on a non-combat mission until last summer.

Australian forces, along with US ones, also cooperated with the SDF in relief operations after the Indian Ocean tsunami triggered by a massive earthquake off Sumatra in December 2004. But Japan and Australia have yet to conduct a joint drill.

At the outset of their meeting, both Abe and Howard cited the cooperation between Japan and Australia in Iraq as an example of close interaction and support between the two nations in security issues. "We would like to take this opportunity to express our gratitude for the support Australia gave our ground troops in Iraq," Abe said. Howard replied that Australian forces were impressed by the "professionalism" of Japanese troops.

The Japan-Australia security pact was signed about three weeks after US Vice President Dick Cheney made an Asia-Pacific tour late last month. Unlike his Asian tour three years ago, which took him to Japan, China and South Korea, Cheney this time visited only Japan and Australia, underscoring the particular importance Washington attaches to strengthened ties with Tokyo and Canberra.

Washington has thrown its weight behind closer security ties between Tokyo and Canberra. With relations between the US and South Korea deteriorating in recent years, the administration of President George W Bush is seen by some pundits as shifting the focus of its security policy in the Asia-Pacific away from ties with Japan and South Korea and toward those with Japan and Australia.

Japan, the US and Australia inaugurated a three-way security dialogue of foreign ministers last March. By establishing a 'two plus two' forum of foreign and defense ministers from Japan and Australia, similar to those each already has with the US, Tokyo and Canberra want to strengthen security cooperation among the three nations.

The nascent trilateral security dialogue among Japan, the US and Australia does not include defense ministers or other officials from their defense ministries. Since scheduling meetings of all the foreign and defense ministers from the three nations is difficult, Abe and Howard, apparently with prior consent of the US, agreed to set up trilateral talks of bureau-chief-level foreign and defense officials among the three nations.

The Japan-Australia declaration is also widely seen as part of efforts to implement a four-way "strategic dialogue" among Japan, the US and Australia plus India that Abe has proposed since taking the helm of the Japanese government, although this idea seems unlikely to come into fruition any time soon. Japan invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Japan last December, his first Tokyo trip since taking office, apparently in hopes of strengthening ties with the South Asian country as a counterbalance to the growing influence of China in Asia.

China's fears of containment
To be sure, both Tokyo and Canberra have taken pains to dismiss suggestions that strengthened security ties could strain their ties with China, saying that the just-signed security pact is not directed at that country. And the security pact is quite different in nature from the Japan-US and Australia-US alliances, which emphasize defense obligations. But Beijing will probably not take the Japanese and Australian assurances at face value.

Both Japan and Australia emphasized that the security pact inked on Tuesday was not directed specifically at China or any other countries in the region. "This declaration lifts the security aspects of our relationship more closely to the level of our economic and commercial ties," Howard said after signing the document. "Neither China nor any other country in the region should see this declaration as being antagonistic toward them."

Tokyo and Washington, increasingly concerned about China's rapid military buildup and modernization, have called for Beijing to make more transparent its military policy, including military spending, which has kept swelling at a double-digit pace in percentage terms for nearly two decades. Meanwhile, Beijing has been alarmed by strengthened security cooperation between Tokyo and Washington in recent years.

Japan and the United States signed a final pact on the realignment of US bases and forces on Japanese soil last May. Aimed at reducing strains on Japanese communities that host bases while maintaining the US presence in Japan, the pact will also further cement the bonds between the close allies through increased integration of their military operations and pave the way for Tokyo's greater involvement in US-led operations, not only in Asia but globally.

The move toward stronger security alliance between Japan and the US has highly alarmed China, especially since a peaceful settlement to tensions in the Taiwan Strait was included in a list of common strategic goals to be pursued by Tokyo and Washington under the new security arrangements. Beijing still regards Taiwan as a renegade province that must be reunified with the mainland, even by force if necessary.

There are also suspicions in China that the real US motive for the sweeping overhaul of its military's global posture might be what some call the "soft containment" of the rapidly ascending military and economic power. The Bush administration publicly denies any intention to pursue a containment policy toward China and claims its policy is to encourage China to be a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system.

Japan is Australia's largest trading partner, followed by China and the US. Australia is a major supplier of coal, iron ore, oil and natural gas, which together account for nearly 60% of its Japan-bound exports. With the world's largest uranium deposits, Australia is also an important country for Japan's civilian nuclear policy.

Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is [email protected]