15 Jul 2023
Why Japan-Australia alliance needs new strategic edge to do some ‘heavy lifting’
By Justin Bassi
Strategically, Japan and Australia have more in common than just about any two nations – to the extent that we are allies in all but treaty status. Australia wants – and in fact needs – that relationship to get even closer.
Both nations need to be participants in the strategic competition that is firmly under way. We cannot afford to ignore it as something that is the exclusive business of the US and China. And the key foundation for the next stage of our partnership must be technology co-operation because critical technologies are fundamental to that strategic competition.
The relationship was not always on this trajectory. While for many years Japan has been finding ways to manage Beijing’s increasing assertiveness, Australia until around 2017 remained fixated on China as an economic silver bullet, taking us down a path of market concentration, economic dependency and security vulnerability. We found it easier to pursue Japanese whaling than we did Beijing’s cyber attacks, militarisation of the South China Sea or covert influence of domestic and international institutions. But partly in response to China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour across the past decade, Japan and Australia have drawn closer together.
Our shared interests and values and our strong desire to keep the Indo-Pacific free, open and resilient required nothing less. Countries – even strong economies and democracies such as Japan – cannot face and counter economic coercion, cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns alone. Hence a new phase of co-operation and partnership is under way.
Both countries have recognised the importance of India and embraced the revitalisation of the Quad grouping. When the US pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it was our two countries that kept it together. And in Tokyo and Canberra there is a recognition that our bilateral relationship should be comprehensive: being about people, economics, security and defence.
We can continue these gains of recent years by working together on the challenge of technology co-operation. Technology sits at the heart of strategic competition in the sense that it is driving unprecedented change to economies, security, individual lives and international relations. The countries – or coalitions of countries – that gain pre-eminence in these technologies and set the international standards for these critical fields will gain an enormous strategic advantage.
Japan is a technologically advanced country that recently has unveiled plans for a 10 trillion yen ($107bn) national endowment fund to boost research and innovation through its top universities. As the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s own research has shown, it performs strongly in some key areas relevant to the AUKUS partnership, including quantum and hypersonics. Our Critical Technology Tracker also shows, however, that China is leading the world in high-impact research in 43 out of 51 technology fields relevant to defence. Beijing’s investment in critical technologies relevant to national security has been of a scale that no individual nation – not even the US – can confidently match it. This is the logic behind the AUKUS partnership. As ASPI’s tracker shows, we can remain competitive if we work together.
AUKUS pillar two – which serves as an accelerator for development of critical capabilities related to hypersonics, AI, quantum and other advanced technologies – has a much greater chance of success if we make it inclusive, not exclusive. We should therefore encourage Japan and others to participate as appropriate.
This is in fact a huge development opportunity: for partnerships, for technology, for capability, for deterrence and for a more stable and secure world.
The Japanese government has committed to a dramatic increase to its defence spending commitments. But, as with Australia’s own investments, this increase is not about creating instability and increasing the risks of conflict; rather about bolstering deterrence to avoid war and improve regional stability. Stability doesn’t mean an absence of difference or competition. It means living with and managing tension, not thinking it can be ignored.
This is why deterrence is mandatory for stability: it doesn’t prevent differences or competition or even some low-level conflict, but it does help prevent those from escalating into greater conflict or war. Technological superiority and partnerships together make the most potent recipe for deterrence based on strength.
Moreover, authoritarian regimes including Beijing are expertly filling the gap between war and peace with strategically targeted economic coercion, cyber-enabled theft and disinformation and, as we have seen this month, dangerous military intercepts on the seas and in the skies.
Democratic countries have struggled to find adequate responses, especially collective responses. We failed to join forces to increase internet safety and security. And we failed to come together to bake security into social media. This must change as we face the next leap in technology – artificial intelligence, which is shaping up to be a revolution like no other.
Japan’s recent example of leading on economic security as hosts of the G7 set an important example for others to follow in terms of how states can work together on emerging security challenges. We need more global leadership like this and we must encourage the next G7 chair, Italy, to grasp the baton, pursuing an economic security agenda and inviting nations like Australia, South Korea and India.
We can control our destiny or abdicate responsibility and hand it to the control of others who do not have our interests at heart. It’s vital that we continue to build our relationship because a stable balance of power will take effort by all. As regional powers, Australia and Japan are in the prime position to do the heavy lifting.