Two very interesting pieces of news have surfaced in the last two days regarding the Australia-Japan relationship. On Wednesday morning (日) in New York, Japan and Australia, on the heels of the recent two-plus-two dialogue in Sydney, agreed to further deepening of the strategic partnership, and explicitly committed themselves to making a breakthrough on the Economic Partnership Agreement which has been under negotiation for 5 years.

Then today in The Australian it was revealed that there is a high likelihood that Australia and Japan will confirm a defense technology deal at some point in the future which will likely involve a  transfer of the technology underpinning Japan’s highly regarded diesel-electric AIP Soryu submarine. This deal is an outgrowth of the relaxing of the arms export restrictions that took place late last year.

These would both be significant steps for the strategic relationship if they come to fruition. Australia and Japan already have a ministerial “two-plus-two dialogue.” In fact Australia is the only nation other than the US to have such an arrangement with Japan. Japan’s two-plus-two dialogues with Vietnam and India are at the sub-ministerial level. Australia and Japan in the last few years have signed an Acquisitions and Cross-servicing Agreement (ACSA) and also an intelligence-sharing agreement. They have recently begun conducting bilateral military exercises together with the Nichi-Gou Trident exercises in June this year. Japan’s SDF is also, after US Forces Japan, the most familiar with the Australian defense forces as the two countries have deepened military-level relations starting with the Cambodia UNPKO, and have comprehensively engaged with each other in regional peacekeeping (particularly in East Timor), humanitarian and disaster relief,  and human security fields. Of course, the Australian Defense Force also played  a role in protecting the Japanese SDF in Iraq.

So, other than a formal alliance, which is unlikely due to Japan’s restrictions on the exercise of collective self-defense, and also the fact that alliances are no longer the weapon of choice for security partnerships, there are only a few areas left where the two countries could usefully collaborate in more depth than they do now. One such area is in the maritime domain, particularly in terms of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW). When the two countries held their first bilateral defense exercises recently they engaged in ASW exercises, something they have also done so with the US in trilateral exercises. Furthermore, there has been interesting discussion in the Australian press about the Japanese working with the Australians, perhaps in a joint partnership, to outfit the Royal Australian Navy with 12 submarines similar to the highly regarded Japanese diesel-electric mid-sized Soryuu submarine. There have been numerous maintenance and technical issues with Australia’s Collins-class submarines, hence a desire this time around to acquire a proven platform. This morning’s news suggests that the likelihood of this going ahead is high. In terms of broader security relations, The Australian in the link above also noted the possibility of Australia and Japan working together on some aspects of F-35 production, as well as the possibility for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces joining upcoming disaster relief exercises in Australia.

Two other areas would be the economic partnership, and collaboration within the UN, including on UN Security Council reform. Australia is currently competing for a non-permanent seat in the next installment of the UN Security Council, and Japan is sure to support this. Australia has after all supported Japan’s ascension to the UNSC as a permanent member after UNSC reform (if it ever takes place) since the early 1990s. In terms of the economic partnership, while it has been deepening over time without an EPA, particularly as Japan has invested much more in the Australian mineral resource economy recently (in part a response to Chinese investment in Australia), negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement lagged for some time. However, in the last year or so it would seem that the DPJ, perhaps using the TPP as a bait and switch approach to distract the anti-FTA elements at home, has begun a new push for an EPA* with Australia. Certainly it seemed that the Japanese government was more engaged with the FTA process than it had been in previous years, with the exception of a bit of activity when negotiations were first entered into in 2007. Of note in terms of this particular announcement, is that the last time an Economic Partnership Agreement was explicitly connected to the deepening of the strategic partnership in this way was when former Prime Minister Abe in 2007 basically told his own bureaucracy that an EPA with India would be agreed to and that it was to be done soon. And indeed it was soon settled and is now in force. It is within this context that we can perhaps understand the latest commitment, and it would not surprise me if we see an EPA between Australia and Japan, irrespective of what happens in regards to the TPP, within the next two years.

* Japan doesn’t do “FTAs” as they see them as too narrow. They tend to go for wider “economic partnership agreements,” which put less emphasis on increasing the percentage of trade items where tariffs will not be applied (to be called an FTA this usually needs to be somewhere in the mid-90s (%)), in favour of economic engagement and agreements in areas wider than tariff liberalization.

[This is a partial rewrite of a post over at Sigma1 - apologies for semi-cross posting]

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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
Corey Wallace has 48 post(s) on New Pacific Institute