The Future of the Japan-Australia Partnership


Australia’s White Paper and the Rise of China

In October 2012, the Australian government published a white paper outlining the country’s Asia policy for the twenty-first century. Titled “Australia in the Asian Century,” the white paper examined the policies Australia needs to adopt to make the most of the opportunities presented by the burgeoning Asian economy.

The publication of the white paper is itself symbolic of the seriousness of Australia’s intent. As the white paper makes clear, there is a widespread understanding in government circles that Australia needs to position itself closer to Asia and needs to do more to improve its understanding of Asia. The report is quite categorical, stating clearly that Australia needs to become a “more Asia-literate and Asia-capable nation.”

It is possible to see a certain bias in the overall tone of the paper. Running through it is a concern with how Australia should react to a rising China, and how it should act to ensure that it derives the greatest possible benefits from the booming Chinese economy. One could almost say that this is not so much a white paper about Asia as one about China. There are good reasons for this.

Strategic Interests, Political Ideals

China’s rise presents Australia with a strategic dilemma of a kind that it has not faced before. Historically, Australia’s partners—first Britain, and then the United States and Japan—have been countries with which Australia shares common political and economic ideals, including a belief in free-market principles and democracy. Until now, in other words, Australia has shared not only economic interests with its partners, but political and strategic interests too. With China, the situation is different. Although the economic relationship between Australia and China goes from strength to strength, the two countries do not necessarily have strategic interests or political ideals in common. Figuring out how to deal with a partner of this kind is a complicated new conundrum for Australia.

Strengthening the Japan-Australia Partnership

Japan faces a similar dilemma. Maintaining a balance between deepening economic ties with China and an ever closer security and defence relationship with the United States will not be easy. There is, however, one decisive difference between Australia’s position and Japan’s. For geographical and historical reasons, it is highly unlikely that Australia will ever become involved in a serious politico-military dispute with China (although there may be differences in values and approaches). Consequently, it is likely that Australia will probably move closer to China by adopting a policy that deliberately separates politics and economics.

Australia’s China policy is likely to have consequences for the partnership between Japan and Australia. Recently, there has been a great deal of talk about improving security cooperation between the two countries, and both governments are looking for ways to explore the potential for further cooperation on military technology that goes beyond peace-building activities in the Middle East. If Japan and Australia are to work more closely together on national security at the same time as they increase their economic dependence on the Chinese market, they will need to develop closer dialogue than ever to communicate their attitudes toward China and their policies toward the regional superpower. In doing so, they will need to take American thinking and American policies toward China into consideration. But the most important point will be China itself. How does the country see its own future? For it will be China itself that decides the course it will take over the coming years.

In the medium to long term, based on the premise that allowing China to make a smooth transition to free-market principles and democratic values represents the optimal outcome not just for Japan, Australia, and the United States, but also for China itself, Japan and Australia need to consider how best to work alongside the United States and decide what kind of attitude they should adopt toward China.

China is thus a central concern for the Japan-Australia partnership. The fact that Australia’s white paper puts its focus on China does not mean that Australia is underestimating the importance of its relationship with Japan. On the contrary, it suggests paradoxically that the Australian government is giving careful consideration to ways in which it can strengthen the partnership between the two countries in the years to come.

(Originally written in Japanese on March 4, 2013.)

Japan United States security China Australia politics America Ogoura Kazuo partnership economics