Australia in the New Strategic Environment: The Australian-Japanese Relationship Within in an Evolving Deterrent Context


By Robbin Laird

The most recent seminar of The Sir Richard Williams Foundation focused on shaping a way ahead for Australia in the new strategic situation. At the heart of consideration was Australia facing the core challenges of deterrence.

But as a non-nuclear power and as a junior partner in the post-World War II American coalition, deterrence has not been something Canberra has really had to think about.

But this is changing.

As LTGEN Simon Stuart, COS of the Australian Army, put it at the seminar: “Pax-Americana was an historic anomaly. The norm in human history is a violent transfer of power from one empire to another – and 14 of the 16 transitions between empires in human history have involved wars. We live in an era that might be described as post-peak globalisation. Understanding how the international system works, what the great economic or trading blocks are, is an endeavour we need to understand.”

As global conflict continues apace, and Australia navigates its way ahead, there is a clear desire to defend Australia’s interests and to deter actions by China which significantly undercut those interests.

But what does Australia wish to deter?

How does it do so?

And how does it work its allied and partner relationships in conjunction with defining its new relationship with China?

Working with core allies and deepening military and political-military cooperation in the region and beyond is a core part of how Australia is shaping its way ahead. The AUKUS agreement is certainly an expression of this; but it clearly is not the only element of what Australia needs to do.

During my visit, I had a chance to talk with my colleague Professor Stephan Frühling (whose biography can be seen at the end of this article) about a key aspect of this issue, namely, the significant evolution of the Japanese strategic relationship with Australia. Recently, Frühling taught for several months in Japan and gained some first-hand insights into the situation.

He argued that the U.S.-Japanese defence relationship has been built around close political-military and force integration capabilities. Australia’s relationship with Japan has not been constructed this way. But he argues that Australia and Japan have clearly moved towards such a relationship.

Last Fall, the Japanese Prime Minister visited Australia and the two governments agreed to a new strategic relationship in which their intelligence and military forces would work more closely together, and the scope and ambition for policy dialogue on how both countries’ strategic posture can coalesce significantly expands (the agreement is reproduced at the end of the article). There was an agreement for Japanese forces to be part of allied exercises on an ongoing basis in Australia, which could see a much broader relationship in terms of providing mutual strategic depth for both countries.

Hitherto, Australia has avoided anything looking like an American-Japanese defence agreement. But Frühling suggests that such a path might have started for the two countries with the new agreement and the joint concern with the Chinese strategic threat to the region.

But growth along these lines will require a culture change in Canberra, Frühling argues. Given the absence of a deterrence focus in Australian strategic culture, defence cooperation has been limited to the technical aspects of interoperability and cooperation at the political level, rather than building a robust political-military working culture.

In such a culture, one would shape key agreements on how Australia works with allies in working the strategic chessboard to support deterrence before a conflict breaks out. Canberra’s experience in working with the United States was shaped through joint operations that started after conflict had already broken out, especially in the Middle East, rather than joint presence and signaling for deterrence.

In the past few years, this is changing. And shaping new political-military relationships along with military cooperation agreements can be expected to grow. Frühling made the interesting observation that the AUKUS agreement by bringing the UK military into a more direct role in Australian defence could bring the significant experience the Brits have in political-military allied cooperation efforts to bear on the Australian experience. This would be a sort of cultural contribution of the British military with their long history within NATO institutions as well as their most recent bilateral US-UK capability integration evident in the coming of the UK aircraft carrier and carrier aviation.

Frühling underscored: “What we’re talking about actually is operational integration in the sense of relying allies’ contributions in a crisis rather than a technical focus on interoperability.”

In the Australian-Japanese context this would mean direct discussions on what the two sides would be willing to commit to in case of crises to meet their joint operational requirements in fluid strategic situations. There is a clear need to expand how Japan and Australia might cooperate bilaterally or with other allies in generating new military capabilities, sustainment depth or joint logistical support in a crisis.

In a discussion I had with a U.S. senior military official earlier this year, he made quite a similar point with regard to shaping the way ahead with allies. When operating in a coalition, it is not simply a question of whether the forces can work together but of where and with what authorities to do so in a crisis.  As this official put it: “My definition of interoperability begins with our ability for systems to talk to each other, and our TTPs to be synchronized. Interchangeability is where we understand where our national objectives overlap, and we drive into that space, and then we operate in that space.

“For example, with regards to Australia and the United States, our objectives, have a have a large overlap in a Venn diagram. Maybe Indonesia and the United States don’t overlap as much. I’m not asking them for support. I’m understanding what their objectives are, and I’m finding where our objectives overlap, then I will let the policymakers understand how in the warfighting perspective it’d be great if we can help reshape the Venn diagram of intersecting objectives. But that’s not my job. My job is to understand, what’s an ally’s objective.? What’s your objective in the South China Sea? What’s your objective as far as freedom of navigation? Are we on the same page? Let’s just start there. And then work together.”

There is much to be done by Canberra in dealing with Tokyo along these lines. What Frühling is suggesting is that effort has begun in earnest.

Professor Stephan Frühling

Stephan Frühling is Professor in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University and has widely published on Australian defence policy, defence planning and strategy, nuclear weapons and NATO

Stephan was the Fulbright Professional Fellow in Australia-US Alliance Studies at Georgetown University in Washington DC in 2017. He worked as a ‘Partner across the globe’ research fellow in the Research Division of the NATO Defence College in Rome in 2015 and was a member of the Australian Government’s External Panel of Experts on the development of the 2016 Defence White Paper.

Previously, he was the Associate Dean Partnership and Engagement (2021-2022), Deputy Dean (2020 to 2021), and Associate Dean Education (2016 to 2020) in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, the inaugural Director of Studies of the ANU Master in Military Studies program at the Australian Defence Force’s Australian Command and Staff College (2011 to 2013), and Managing Editor of the Kokoda Foundation’s journal Security Challenges (2006 to 2014).

Australia-Japan Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation

22 October 2022

  1. We, the Prime Ministers of Australia and Japan, hereby reaffirm the vital Special Strategic Partnership between our two countries, a pillar of a free and open Indo-Pacific that is inclusive and resilient.
  2. We commit to a positive and ambitious agenda to deepen and expand our comprehensive engagement over the decade ahead.
  3. Our significant trade, investment, defence and security ties, the deep affinity between our peoples and our shared values of democracy, human rights, free trade and a rules-based international order, make Australia and Japan natural partners.
  4. We will build on the great strides our two countries have made through the Australia-Japan Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation of 2007 and the Special Strategic Partnership established in 2014.
  5. We recognise that our partnership must continue to evolve to meet growing risks to our shared values and mutual strategic interests. We affirm our unwavering commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is underpinned, in particular, by:
  • a rules-based order where states resolve disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law, and where sovereignty and territorial integrity are respected
  • a favourable strategic balance that deters aggression and behaviour that undermines international rules and norms
  • an open, stable, and secure maritime domain underpinned by adherence to international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, in which States can exercise freedom of navigation and overflight and are not subject to coercive or destabilising actions
  • inclusive and transparent institutions, norms and standards that guide cooperation on shared challenges in domains such as cyber, space, critical and emerging technologies and telecommunications
  • countries that are resilient to aggression, coercion, disinformation, malicious cyber activity and other forms of interference, as well as to global challenges such as pandemics, natural disasters and climate change
  • continuing regional economic integration underpinned by a rules-based and market-oriented trade and investment system, as well as diverse and resilient supply chains.
    1. Over the next ten years, Australia and Japan will work together more closely for our shared objectives. We will strengthen exchanges of strategic assessments at all levels, including through annual reciprocal leaders’ meetings, foreign and defence ministers’ meetings, dialogues between senior officials, and intelligence cooperation. We will consult each other on contingencies that may affect our sovereignty and regional security interests, and consider measures in response.
    2. Our bilateral partnership also reinforces our respective alliances with the United States that serve as critical pillars for our security, as well as for peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific. Deepening trilateral cooperation with the United States is critical to enhancing our strategic alignment, policy coordination, interoperability, and joint capability.
    3. We will expand and deepen practical cooperation and further enhance interoperability between the Australian Defence Force and the Japan Self-Defense Forces through more sophisticated joint exercises and operations, multilateral exercises with partners, mutual use of facilities including maintenance, asset protection, and personnel links and exchanges. We will reinforce security and defence cooperation including in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, capacity building for regional partners, advanced defence science and technology, defence industry and high-end capabilities. We will explore additional ways to improve the effectiveness of our bilateral security and defence cooperation, including through discussions on scope, objectives, and forms of enhanced operational cooperation between our two defence forces.
    4. We will strengthen cooperation with partners to ensure the benefits of economic openness do not engender vulnerabilities that can be exploited. We will promote economic security by building resilient supply chains, including for clean energy technologies, promoting high quality infrastructure and transparent and sustainable lending practices, strengthening protection of critical infrastructure, including telecommunications security and resilience, addressing forced technology transfers, including those with more sophisticated means, strengthening border and law enforcement collaboration and resisting economic coercion and disinformation. We will work together to maintain an open, free, safe, and secure technology environment.
    5. Australia and Japan will strengthen our cyber defences and improve our shared awareness of cyber threats. We will also enhance our cooperation in the space domain and other strategic capabilities vital to our partnership. We will continue to enhance our cooperation and information exchange on law enforcement and border security to combat transnational and serious organised crime, including on risks to critical supply chains.
    6. In our shared pursuit of achieving a world without nuclear weapons, Australia and Japan will work closely with each other to uphold and strengthen the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
    7. We will advance the women, peace and security agenda, as enshrined in UNSCR1325.
    8. We will entrench and expand our cooperation with other partners in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, to align our efforts towards realisation of our vision for the Indo-Pacific.
    9. We will cooperate with ASEAN and support ASEAN centrality and the fundamental principles of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and its practical implementation. We will support a resilient and sovereign Pacific region, working with existing institutions, including the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), and to support the PIF with the implementation of its 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. We will collaborate to build regional resilience in areas such as climate change, health security, energy transition, humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and maritime security.
    10. We commit to leading action at all levels to implement this ambitious agenda for enhanced security cooperation, to maximise the potential of our Special Strategic Partnership and contribute to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
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