20 August 2015
by Ruo Wang

Should Australia lean to Japan before China?

Recently the growing bilateral military ties between Japan and Australia have captured much media attention.

On May 19, according to the Asahi Shimbun, Japan dived into the race to provide attack-submarine technology to Australia. Competing with France and Germany, Japan is seen as the front-runner for this bidding race.

If successful, this would be the first time Japan has exported "technological information related to an actual weapon" to a foreign country.

Also, according to a recent parliamentary inquiry, Japan's involvement in this bidding is mainly driven by "political imperatives rather than merit" and with the deadline for submitting "an 80 per cent complete plan" approaching, Japan now is accelerating its bidding progress to compete with Germany and France.

Strengthening its security relations with Japan - China's long-term geostrategic rival in East Asia - partly reflects Australia's choice of a hedging strategy in the current volatile international structure. However, the tense Sino-Japanese relations and Australia's close economic ties with China suggest Australia would face limited strategic prospects if it further leaned to Japan.

Australia-Japan bilateral defense ties have been significantly strengthened since the 2007 Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation was signed. Especially in the context of the U.S "rebalance" strategy and China's growing military capacity building, the two "spoke" countries in the traditional US-led Asian alliance system have enhanced collaboration in intelligence sharing, officer exchanges, institutionalized official meetings, etc. The expanding bilateral relationship has even been labeled a form of 'quasi-alliance' by Japanese officials.

In contrast, Sino-Japanese political relations have deteriorated particularly in terms of maritime security in recent years. In the meantime, the economic relations between Japan and China hardly mitigate the political tension between them. According to a survey conducted by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation in December 2013, because of China's higherlabor costs and bilateral tension, China's popularity as a preferential investment destination for Japanese companies has decreased by 24.6% contrasted by 2012. The 2014 Japan-China Public Opinion Survey jointly conducted by China Daily and Genron NPO also shows the ratio of Japanese people who believe that current Japan-China relations are in bad shape came to 83.4 percent-the worst result ever.

In this context, further security cooperation with China's natural geostrategic rival in East Asia would inevitably alert China and cause political tensions.

China has always been sensitive to any perceptions of encirclement by the U.S-led alliance system. China's authority and government-aligned media tend to interpret the enhanced defense ties as a form of "containment".

After China announced the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) which covered Tokyo-controlled islands in 2013, Foreign Minister Julia Bishop voiced opposition to the establishment of the zone. Hercomment angered Beijing and caused diplomatic embarrassment when Bishop visited Beijing in early December 2013-China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi delivered a stinging criticism of Australia's comment in front of television cameras in a face-to-face meeting with Bishop-a move rarely seen in China's diplomacy.

China is "Australia's largest export market for both goods and services, accounting for nearly a third of total exports, and a growing source of foreign investment". Australia has great stakes in maintaining sound economic relations with its biggest trading partner.

Historical precedents indicate the limited prospects of Australian-Japanese security cooperation.

As early as 2006-2007, Shinzo Abe initiated the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the maritime democracies: the U.S, Japan, Australia and India. However, taken by China as an overt gesture of encirclement, this initiative was eventually abandoned, with Australia dropping out of the dialogue because of the deteriorating bilateral relations with China.

Australia's further leaning towards Japan will arouse political tensions in Sino-Australian relations given China's geostrategic sensitivity and in the long run, China's response may make it hard for Australia to maintain a balance between the two East Asian powers.