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Australia: the future junior ally of Japan

By Peter Coates - posted Thursday, 5 February 2015


As the political reputation of our Prime Minister, currently Tony Abbott, plummets, some of his more outlandish foreign policy ideas are being seen for what they are. This article doesn't raise the bright ideas of rushing Australian troops to Ukraine, to hold back Russian tanks, or to the Middle East, to wait for an invitation for the first two months, but the policy of buying into an alliance with Japan.

News.com.au reported on July 9, 2014 that: "AUSTRALIA and Japan have become partners in a "special relationship" that will see both countries join with the US in a powerful military alliance aimed at curbing China's influence in the region. During an extraordinary day in the long Australia-Japan relationship, yesterday in Canberra both Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe pledged to create a partnership for "peace, prosperity and the rule of law". Fresh from reversing almost 70 years of pacifism embedded in his nation's post-World War 2 constitution, Mr Abe placed Australia alongside the US at the forefront of Japan's future defence strategy."

Alliancemaintenance through weapon system purchases has long been a factor in Australia's relationship with the US. However, as the US has no conventional submarines to sell, there is a joint US-Japanese scheme to sell Japanese submarines to Australia. The purchase price for Australia to secure this alliance with Japan is now around $25Billion (with the recent depreciation of our dollar compared to the US dollar). This is specifically for 12 Made in Japan submarines. Abbott's budgetary ideas have skimped on health, education and welfare but money is no object when paying for a military alliance from Abbott's friend, the likeminded conservative Japanese Prime Minister Abe.

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By having Japan build our submarines Abbott can also run down Australia's ship and submarine-building industry, which he sees as a hotbed of Labor, leftwing, union interests anyway.

So what's in it for Japan? Well the money helps. Japan also frets about what it sees as rising threats from China, North Korea and increasingly Russia. However Japan is mainly thinking about the potential economic benefits of contested islands in the South China and East China Seas.

Few Australians know or care about several disputes in the East China Sea involving China, Taiwan, Japan and others. Possibly the most dangerous Japan versus China dispute is over a small island chain - which is known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, the Diaoyu Islands in China and the Diaoyutai Islands in Taiwan. The importance of the Senkakus are that great unmentionable factor - oil. Oil draws military forces – be they Australian forces in the Middle East or future Australian forces in Northeast Asia.

The US, for its part, is worried about the cost of keeping the world's oceans open for trade, including oil. Although the US, in the next 12 months, will be spending many extra $Billions to maintain the Asia-Pacific "pivot" against China the US increasingly wants Japan to spend more on defence. Japan's current defence spending is only about 1% of its GDP. The US also wants Japan to secure military alliances – that is with the few countries interested – not South Korea or most Southeast Asian countries - after Japan's horrific conduct in World War Two.

The US and Japan are quite explicit in seeing a submarine sale as Australia-Japan strategic alliance cement. A US Admiral has condescended to interpret what an Australian Defence Minister really wanted. The Japan Times of January 18, 2015 reports : "Vice Adm. Robert Thomas, commander of the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet, reportedly said Oct. 24 [2014] in Tokyo that then-Australian Defense Minister David Johnston was very interested in Japan's Soryu-class subs. "I talked to him about it four years ago and I said: 'You want to find the finest diesel-electric submarine made on the planet - it's made at Kobe works in Japan,'…"

Also in that Japan Times article retired Japanese submarine admiral Masao Kobayashi said, "The U.S., which has close but separate security pacts with Japan and Australia, probably wants Australia to buy Japanese submarines because it would greatly strengthen their strategic military ties."

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When anyone bothers to ask ordinary Australians whether Australia should be drawn into a conflict by an additional senior ally (Japan) the response appears encouragingly negative. ABC News (online), January 6, 2015, reported the results of a Survey of over 1,000 Australians, which indicated "Australians would overwhelmingly reject siding with close ally Japan against top-trade partner China over a dispute in the East China Sea and prefer to remain neutral." In the article Australia's former Foreign Minister Bob Carr said "…as far as the public was concerned, Australia was not obliged under the Australia-New Zealand-United States (ANZUS) treaty to make a commitment…".

Now it needs to be explained that the Survey, Australian Attitudes on ANZUS and the East China Sea, was commissioned by the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI). ACRI was established in December 2013 with a grant of $1.8 million from a citizen of China. Bob Carr is the Director of ACRI.

Before one writes off ACRI as a support system for Chinese interests and for Bob Carr it must be said that ACRI was officially launched on May 16, 2014 by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Given the Coalition's declining fortunes Bob may be a "former Foreign Minister" for a very short time. He may again be Foreign Minister after the next Federal Election.

If Abbott has his way Australia will be junior ally not only of the US but of Japan with either of those two drawing Australia into their wars. It must be asked "If or when Abbott stands down as Prime Minister would a Coalition Government still pursue an alliance with Japan?"

If Labor wins in the next election would Bill Shorten (who agrees with Abbott's Middle East policies) pursue an alliance with Japan?

Is a survey a genuine gauge of what Australians' want? How else can we, the public, influence basic foreign and defence policy changes - including multi $Billion defence alliances with "friends" likely to draw Australia into wars?

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About the Author

Peter Coates has been writing articles on military, security and international relations issues since 2006. In 2014 he completed a Masterís Degree in International Relations, with a high distinction average. His website is Submarine Matters.

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