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Commentary: Takeaways from Japan’s recent security meetings

  • January 14, 2022
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press

BY MICHAEL MACARTHUR BOSACK, CONTRIBUTING WRITER

 

Last week, the world witnessed Prime Ministers Fumio Kishida and Scott Morrison conduct a signing ceremony for the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), a milestone document aimed at further institutionalizing security cooperation between Australia and Japan.

 

Meanwhile, officials from the United States and Japan held a ministerial-level meeting, signed a new cost-sharing agreement and worked through issues related to COVID-19 and U.S. bases throughout the country.

 

The events from last week demonstrated contrast in Japan’s security relationships. One from a burgeoning alignment, still in its fledgling stages but boldly blazing a trail for others to follow. The other from an alliance tempered over the course of 70 years, weathered by external and domestic crises both political and practical in nature.

 

While Australia has been establishing milestones for Japan’s 21st-century security relationships with the other so-called middle powers, the U.S.-Japan alliance still presents the original precedent and their juxtaposition helps elucidate four takeaways from the past week.

 

First, the RAA with Australia may be signed, but negotiations on the details regarding implementation will continue. Although Australia and Japan can celebrate the conclusion of a process that took the better part of a decade, the terms of the agreement are already subject to change via unilateral reinterpretation.

 

Like many other diplomatic deals, this is something well-understood by U.S.-Japan alliance managers. In the past, negotiators from Tokyo and Washington lauded the conclusion of the 1997 and 2015 Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation, only to see the terms of implementation change based on Japan’s parliament. In both cases, legislative deliberations imposed new constraints, modified unilateral interpretations of the text of the agreements and limited the scope of implementation. And that was for agreements that did not require formal ratification.

 

The RAA will now need to go to the parliament for passage, at which point the Kishida administration must do its best to preserve the terms of what Australia and Japan agreed upon at the negotiating table. The likelihood that all those terms will make it through parliamentary deliberations without at least some modification is slim. Once ratified, the two governments must reconvene to figure out what changed, what they can put into practice and how.

 

The second takeaway is that the measure of success for Australia and Japan going forward is not how adept the partners will be at avoiding problems, but how well they can work through them.

 

Things looked a lot rosier for Australia and Japan last week than they did for the United States and Japan. Kishida spent part of the week expressing his dismay at U.S. forces in Japan and not so subtly insinuating that they are the source of the sixth wave and omicron outbreak in the country, and he spent another part trading smiles with Morrison while lauding their shiny new agreement. However, that new agreement that Australia and Japan just signed brings risk along with opportunity.

 

The RAA is akin to the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (or “SOFA”), in that it covers the rights, duties and obligations for forces operating on the foreign partner’s soil.

 

Although neither Australia nor Japan have signaled any intent for long-term stationing of forces on each other’s territory, any operational deployment of military forces introduces a risk of incidents and accidents. These could come in the form of equipment mishaps, vehicle collisions, failure to follow proper entry procedures, disorderly conduct and deliberate criminal acts.

 

For Australia and any other country that seeks to employ a RAA with Japan, the key is having a mechanism for responding flexibly and effectively to problems when rather than if they occur.

 

In the case of the U.S.-Japan alliance, there is no mechanism more frequently employed than the Joint Committee, which earned its most recent mention in this past weekend’s joint statement on COVID-19 response from the two governments. The Joint Committee is the designated venue for managing SOFA issues and has now met 1,133 times since 1960.

 

One of the common criticisms of the SOFA is that it is outdated and requires revision, but the two governments have employed the Joint Committee to amend the terms of implementation countless times, including over the past two years in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The third takeaway is that the Australia-Japan security relationship is in lockstep with the U.S.-Japan alliance. Some observers have interpreted Japan’s effort to foster relationships with other security partners as a sign of fissures in the U.S.-Japan alliance — that perhaps Japan is looking elsewhere to guarantee its security.

 

Instead, even a cursory side-by-side examination of Japan’s joint statements with Australia and the United States from last week illustrates remarkable consistency from the two security relationships.

 

Both statements mention the free and open Indo-Pacific, the rules-based international order, North Korean nuclear and missile development, Taiwan and Chinese human rights issues, to name a few. They also recognize progress in each other’s respective partnerships, while calling on greater cooperation with other foreign partners.

 

There were a few exceptions, of course. Australia neither has an obligation to come to Japan’s defense nor an arsenal of nuclear weapons, so there was no way it would replicate the language about extended deterrence and employing the full range of military capabilities in fulfillment of treaty obligations for Japan.

 

There were also a few topics that, although included in both statements, were slightly toned down in the Australia-Japan statement. For example, in mentioning the 2016 international tribunal ruling in favor of the Philippines in the South China Sea territorial dispute with China, Australia and Japan removes specific mention of country names. They also avoid naming the Senkakus despite asserting their rejection of any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea.

 

Still aside from those few differences, the themes and messages published last week indicate how closely aligned all three partners are.

Finally, the security partners demonstrated an understanding that healthy security relationships must evolve.

 

The surest way of rendering a security relationship obsolete is to implement policies assuming it will never change. Government administrations change hands, the security environment evolves and shifting demographics alter the political and practical realities underpinning those relationships. For security relationships to succeed, they must from time-to-time revisit their interests, core tradeoffs and capabilities — a theme which was reflected in both of Japan’s engagements last week.

 

For the U.S.-Japan alliance, the two governments welcomed the decision for Japan to revisit its strategic documents — the National Security Strategy and National Defense Program Guidelines that the Kishida administration is looking to publish by the end of this year. Japan also made sure to include a statement about exploring new defense capabilities — a nod to the acquisition of “strike capabilities” meant to enable the Self Defense Forces to execute a preventative attack against enemy military bases.

 

Australia and Japan also signaled a review of their current security trajectory. The two governments promised to issue a new “Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation,” the previous iteration of which came 15 years ago in 2007.

 

With direct support from the U.S.-Japan alliance and useful precedent to follow, the two countries are well-positioned to produce a joint declaration that facilitates even deeper ties between these two security partners.

 

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.

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