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Japan, Australia firm up defense ties against China

CANBERRA—The visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Canberra last week sent reassuring words to the Philippines amid its increasing concerns over China’s assertive claims vis-à-vis disputed territories in the South China Sea.

Abe made waves across the Asia-Pacific when, shortly before his visit to Australia, he announced that his Cabinet had decided to reinterpret the famous pacifist Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, paving the way for Japan to engage in collective self-defense and come to the military aid of a close partner, even outside of Japan itself, if the circumstances were threatening to Japan.

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Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor of the newspaper The Australian, wrote that the decision was “all about strengthening the US-Japan alliance” anchored on mutual defense treaties. (The Philippines is linked to this regional alliance with its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States. The Philippines and the United States signed last April a new 10-year Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which allows US forces access to Philippine military bases. The agreement was signed at a time when the Philippines was embroiled in a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea.)

According to The Australian, “the real context for Abe’s move is China, which has increased its defense budget by more than 10 percent annually and is aggressively pushing territorial claims against numerous Asian neighbors, including the Philippines.”

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The newspaper quoted Mike Green, a Japan scholar at Washington’s Center for Strategic Studies and former Asia director of the National Security Council, as saying that the United States and Australia had “welcomed” Abe’s “constitutional reinterpretation.” Most Southeast Asian governments are reported to be happy with the Japanese move, “because it more firmly entrenches the US position in Asia.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott praised Japan’s expanded role, saying that “Japan has made an important contribution to maintaining stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.” Abbott also said: “The changes announced by Prime Minister Abe on July 1 mean that Japan will be able to make a greater contribution to regional peace and security and will be a stronger partner for Australia.”

The high point of Abe’s visit was his speech to the Australian Parliament last week. Paul Kelly, another commentator writing for The Australian, said the concord between Abbott and Abe reflects two pivotal judgments: that Japan must evolve from the long-standing shadow of World War II as a more “normal” power, and that closer ties between Australia and the new Japan are “core business for our deeper engagement with Asia.”

Kelly said Abbott was taking Australia-Japan relations to a new level. “The heart of Abbott’s policy lies in the idea of strategic non-exclusion,” he said, and quoted Abbott as saying, “You don’t win new friends by losing old ones.”

“He wants a free trade agreement with China. He will offer more liberal investment rules into Australia. He champions military exercises that involve China with the US and Australia,” Kelly said.

In a statement during Abe’s visit, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop declared that Australia would “stand up to China to defend peace, liberal values and the rule of law.” In the clearest statement yet on how to deal with

China, Bishop said it had been for previous governments to avoid speaking about China for fear of causing offense. “China doesn’t respect weakness,” she said, making a break from previous governments “whose reticence had only caused confusion.”

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Bishop said the experience in November of speaking out against China’s unilateral declaration of an air defense information zone had fortified her view that it was better to be frank than misunderstood. “This did affect our national interests because it meant that, for example, our national carrier, Qantas, suddenly had to inform Beijing even if it wasn’t flying anywhere near,” she said. “The freedom of the skies and freedom of the seas in that part of the world are important to us because that’s where the majority of our trade is done. So I believed that, at that time, we had to make clear where we stood on unilateral action that could  be seen as coercive and could be seen to—and which did—affect our national interests.”

Bishop said those who said Australia had to choose between its security alliances and economic engagement with China had been proven “absolutely” wrong. She pointed out that there had been no economic fallout from that forthright exchange.

She also emphasized how the increasingly militarized disputes on China’s periphery were prompting Australia to deepen and broaden military ties with the United States and other nations, most notably Japan. These trends were on display last week, with Abbott agreeing to a “strategic” defense relationship and new technology-sharing agreements with Abe.

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TAGS: Australia, Canberra, China, Japan, shinzo abe, South China Sea
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