Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s first overseas visit for 2018, to Japan, was highlighted by a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his national security council in which North Korea was consistently mentioned as the main danger.
However, the underlying implication of Turnbull’s visit for the now-annual security dialogue is the interest shared by Japan and Australia in countering the strategic rise of China. The defence ties that have been steadily intertwining over the past two decades between Japan and Australia are now likely to strengthen even further.
Security and the global environment
As part of his one-day tour, Turnbull visited a Japanese Self-Defence Force (SDF) base near Tokyo. There, he inspected American-supplied PAC-3 missile interceptors and four Australian-built Bushmaster armoured troop carriers purchased by Japan, with four more ordered.
The troop carrier purchase is Australia’s largest defence export. Its success could lead to more deals on defence industry co-operation, assisted by the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement.
Improved information-sharing on counter-terrorism was on the agenda. The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which Australian and Japan still support, was also discussed with business representatives.
The summit was another upgrade to a long-running series of security agreements. There has been direct co-operation between Japanese and Australian forces since the 1990s, starting in UN peacekeeping missions in Cambodia and East Timor. There’s also the important precedent of a joint stabilisation force in Iraq from 2004 to 2006.
The Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security Co-operation was signed in 2007, and an Information Security Agreement and the Acquisition and Cross-Services Agreement came into force in 2013. A “special strategic partnership” came into effect in 2014, raising Japan’s status second only to the US in Australia’s bilateral defence relations.
The Trilateral Strategic Dialogue has also been conducted between Australia, Japan and the US since 2002. The latest leaders’ meeting between Turnbull, Abe and US President Donald Trump was held at the sidelines of the last year’s ASEAN summit.
The wider strategic environment
As the Australia-Japan defence relationship has deepened, there has been relatively small-scale SDF participation in previous Australian-US exercises, such as Talisman Sabre, and joint naval manoeuvres.
A significantly increased tempo and size of military exercises involving Japanese forces could now be expected in the Northern Territory’s training areas, where rotating units of the US military have been based since 2011.
A joint statement released after Abe and Turnbull’s meeting confirmed that a Status of Forces Agreement is being negotiated to allow Australian forces to begin training at Japanese bases. This would be the first such agreement for Japan with a country other than the US.
If concluded, this agreement would be the prelude of a significant shift in Australia’s strategic doctrine. It would prepare Australian forces to train – and potentially conduct military operations – alongside Japanese and US forces in northeast Asia for the first time since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
Turnbull’s visit also suits Abe’s agenda for changing Japan’s Constitution by the end of the year to respond to the North Korean missile threat, and strategic rivalry with China (and, to a lesser extent, with Russia).
The Abe government plans to have Japan’s Self-Defence Forces formally cited in Article 9 of the Constitution. Critics fear this move will be a pretext to greater overseas deployment in joint operations with friendly countries.
Controversial security bills passed in 2015 allow the SDF to participate in collective self-defence. This can include mutual logistics support between Australian and Japanese forces, such as transport of ammunition and supplies. Abe’s cabinet is already exploring the purchase of cruise missiles from the US, and the deployment of an “Aegis Ashore” anti-ballistic missile system.
Abe’s ruling coalition still controls a comfortable two-thirds majority in parliament after the lower house election last October. Backing for constitutional change is also likely to also come from the new opposition Party of Hope, led by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike – a defence minister in Abe’s first administration.
The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, and the Japanese Communist Party, are determined to halt any change to Article 9. They are backed by a consistent majority of public opinion.
While the Australia-Japan security relationship does not quite yet reach the level of an alliance, which would require military assistance to each other if attacked, it has nevertheless moved another step closer.
The Turnbull government shares the mutual US and Japanese opposition to China’s island-building and territorial claims in the South China Sea. Australia also effectively backs Japan’s possession of the disputed Senkaku Islands, while diplomatically claiming not to take any sides in these disputes.
Turnbull’s visit comes soon after reports that China sent a nuclear-powered attack submarine on patrol in Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands. Commentators are already warning Australia’s closer defence ties with Japan will worsen relations with China, particularly in light of the recent disputes over alleged Chinese political influence in Australia, and criticism of China’s aid program in the Pacific.
Turnbull’s visit was therefore a clear signal that the bilateral relationship between Australia and Japan is increasingly important in the strategic rivalry of the Asia-Pacific. The Turnbull government appears determined to intensify Australian involvement in it.
They may not be co-ordinated, nor linked in any way. But two events in Asia over the next week will help define Australia’s political and security environment for the next period.
First is the convening of the five-yearly Communist Party of China congress. This gets underway on Wednesday with a much-anticipated “work report” from party boss Xi Jinping.
Second is the Japanese elections scheduled for October 22. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is bidding to become the longest-serving leader of his country. He seems determined to enlarge Japan’s security footprint by continuing to beef up its defence forces and seek changes to its pacifist post-war constitution.
From an Australian perspective, the North Korean nuclear crisis invests both the reaffirmation – and strengthening – of Xi’s leadership for another five years, and the re-election of Abe, with particular importance.
In 2016, China ranked first and Japan second as a destination for Australian merchandise trade exports. Trade in services to China ranked first, and Japan ranked eighth.
Japan’s economic and security importance to Australia tends to be underplayed. But it’s worth noting that Japanese investments in Australia are more than double China’s.
Xi’s signature statement to the party congress assumes critical importance given China’s expanding global leadership amid concerns about the Trump administration’s commitment to such a role. Each word and sentence will be parsed for its implications for regional and global security, and for the direction in which he plans to take the world’s second-biggest economy over the next five years.
This will be a speech – given the circumstances of China’s continued rise – that will rank with a US presidential State of the Union address.
The party congress will stretch over the best part of a week, and will be closely observed for indications of Xi’s continuing efforts to strengthen his grip on China’s leadership. As things stand, he has emerged as the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping.
Given his relative youth in Chinese leadership terms, the 64-year-old Xi may well be ruling for the next decade – in other words an additional five-year term past 2017 to 2022. This is well past a nominal retirement age of 68.
In a paper for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Michael Swaine painted a generally optimistic picture of China’s continued evolution under a dominant Xi. However, he also acknowledged that China’s continued rise would inevitably result in tensions over:
… trade, investment, sovereignty rights, and a variety of anxieties involving Chinese and US or Japanese military forces in the Western Pacific.
There’s no doubt Xi and the Chinese leadership are seeking to more effectively use China’s growing international presence to promote the nation’s interests in such sensitive. As a result, tensions with China will in fact likely increase.
The good news is that, rather than marking a turn toward confrontation between China and the West and Japan, the 19th Party Congress will likely signal a high level of stability and continuity in Chinese foreign policy. The bad news is that this continuity is unlikely to reduce the most serious challenges facing China’s relations with the United States and its allies.
In all of this, Japan’s importance in regional security calculations is likely to come more sharply into focus in the next period. This is investing Abe’s likely re-election with a super majority in the Diet in partnership with his Komeito allies with more-than-usual significance.
Latest opinion polls are predicting a surprisingly big win for the Abe-led Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after indications he may have been struggling against the New Hope Party, which was formed on the eve of the election campaign by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.
According to a poll in the Yomiuri newspaper and Kyodo news agency, the LDP-led coalition is on track to win 300 or more seats in the 465-member lower house. This would be an improvement on its standing in the previous parliament.
If the Abe-led coalition is returned with a substantial majority, he is likely to push forward with attempts to revise Japan’s pacifist post-war constitution to enable a clearer definition of Japan’s military to enable it to assert itself militarily – if necessary.
Such a development would have implications for Australia’s growing security relationship with Japan. This partnership has not attracted much attention, but it has been substantial and evolving since a Joint Defence and Security Agreement was struck in 2007.
The two countries have progressively upgraded a bilateral Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement that enhances interoperability between the Australian Defence Force and the Japanese Self-Defence Force. Australia and Japan have also declared a Special Strategic Partnership aimed at strengthening security ties in the Indo-Pacific.
What’s driving closer defence co-ordination between the second world war protagonists is concerns about China’s rise, and the implications for a regional power balance. This would seem to be a prudent course.
In the aftermath of the Communist Party congress and the Japanese election, with Xi and Abe’s positions enhanced, it might be reasonable to assume that the sometimes-tense relations between China and Japan will take a turn for the better. Concerns about instability on the Korean Peninsula should provide a catalyst for greater co-operation, and a lessening of tensions over territorial disputes.
An early opportunity for a show of amity will come at next month’s APEC forum in Vietnam. This will also be attended by US President Donald Trump.
Abe is thought likely to press China for a long-delayed summit with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. North Korea would be a focus of those discussions. For its part, China is anxious that Japan lend its weight to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
One indication that Abe is anxious to improve ties with China is that no cabinet ministers in Abe’s party visited the Yasukuni Shrine on the August 15 anniversary of the war’s end. China has previously angrily protested these visits.
From an economic perspective, close attention will be paid to statements by Xi and others at the party congress on China’s GDP growth targets and economic priorities for the next five years. Indications from the first half of this year are that China’s growth will exceed a 6.5% target for 2017. The economy has been strengthening in the second half of this year thanks, in part, to a construction boom.
But China’s debt-to-GDP ratio remains a significant concern. In the first quarter of 2017 total debt to GDP reached 257.8%. This is up from 187.5% five years ago.
In the end, China-watchers will be animated by personnel shifts in the Chinese leadership evidenced by announcements of a newly constituted Central Committee, Politburo, and, most importantly, Standing Committee of the Politburo.
When these personnel shifts are unveiled they will reveal the extent to which Xi has strengthened his power over the party apparatus, and thus over China. The betting is this will be a win-win for Xi.
North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on September 3 – of what was possibly a hydrogen bomb – prompted a flurry of Western media think pieces attempting to explain the past and predict the future.
Most left out important aspects of the current crisis, says analyst B.R. Myers, a South Korea-based academic expert on North Korean propaganda and author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters.
In this Q&A, The Conversation asked Professor Myers to explain what most in the West are missing about the North-South conflict.
You’re always complaining about press coverage of the Korean crisis. What is it you think people need to know more about?
A major problem is the mischaracterisation of the government in Seoul as liberal, as if it were no less committed to constitutional values and opposed to totalitarianism than the West German social democrats were in the Cold War. This makes Westerners think, “North Korea can’t take over the South without a war, but it knows it can’t win one, therefore it must now be arming only to protect itself”.
In fact, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has pledged commitment to a North-South confederation, and stressed his opposition to any use of military force against the North, no matter what happens. That makes Moon’s current displays of military hardware seem pretty meaningless.
If Seoul and Washington are playing a good-cop, bad-cop game, it’s a terrible idea. The more placid South Korea appears, the more US troops look like the only real obstacle to unification.
Western media applaud Moon’s soft-line declarations, and they like it when the South Korean man in the street says he finds Trump scarier than Kim Jong Un. But there is a danger of Kim taking all these things the wrong way.
You’ve written that some South Koreans admire the North, or at least, feel a sense of shared identity. Why is that? And can this persist in the current climate?
Many intellectuals here admire the North for standing up to the world. It’s a right-wing sort of admiration, really, for a resolute state that does what it says. More common than admiration are feelings of shared ethnic identity with the North. We are perhaps too blinkered by our own globalism to understand how natural they are.
But the average South Korean’s pan-Korean nationalism is rather shallow. Most people here want to see symbolic shows of reconciliation with the North – like a joint Olympic team in 2018 – but they don’t want unification, least of all under Kim Jong Un’s rule.
And they want the US Army to stay here in case he gets the wrong idea. It’s understandable enough, but this crisis will soon force them to pick one side, and one side only. “No ally is better than one’s own race,” President Kim Young Sam (president of South Korea from 1993 to 1998) said, which no West German chancellor would have dreamed of saying.
Washington has let this stuff slide for a long time, but people there are now asking themselves, “Must we really expose America to a nuclear threat in order to protect moderate Korean nationalists from radical nationalists?”
While the failures of the Vietnam War loom large, the US bungling of Korea is rarely discussed in “western media”. What’s the national memory of that war in both Koreas, and how is that impacting the current state of affairs?
That memory impacts the current situation less than one might think. Foreigners assume that because of the war, the two sides must dislike each other more than West and East Germans did. The opposite is the case. Some of my students say, “The North would never attack us, we’re the same people,” as if the war never happened. And North Korea would now be just as committed to unification if it hadn’t.
You mention the Vietnam War. In some ways that’s the more relevant and topical event right now. Kim Il Sung (leader of North Korea from its inception in 1948 until he died 1994, and the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un) was struck both by Washington’s decision not to use nukes on North Vietnam and by its general reluctance to go all out to win.
I’m sure the ease with which bare-footed Vietcong marched into Saigon in 1975 now strengthens Pyongyang’s conviction that the “Yankee colony” will not last long after the colonisers pull out.
In South Korea, meanwhile, conservatives are now loudly invoking the story of South Vietnam’s demise. They say, “There too you had a richer, freer state, and it fell only a few years after US troops pulled out. Let’s not make the same mistake”. They point worriedly to President Moon Jae-in’s own remark that he felt “delight” when predictions of US defeat in Vietnam came true.
How likely is a war?
I agree with those who say North Korea knows a nuclear war is unwinnable. I also think it fancies its chances of a peaceful takeover too highly to want to risk a premature invasion while US troops are here.
On the other hand, the North’s legitimacy derives almost wholly from its subjects’ perception of perfect strength and resolve. This makes it harder for Pyongyang to back down than it was for Moscow during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Also, the North’s ideology glorifies the heart over the mind, instincts over consciousness, which makes rash decisions more likely to be made, even quite low down the military command structure. There is therefore a significant danger of some sort of limited clash at any time. But that has always been the case.