February 1, 2017 11:56 pm JST
J. Berkshire Miller

Japan and Australia can help get US back on course in Asia

Washington's key Asia-Pacific allies should step up links amid uncertainty

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull walk together along the forehsore of Sydney Harbour in Sydney, Australia, Jan. 14.

The Trump era has officially begun, and Washington's allies, partners and rivals in the Asia-Pacific region are cloaked with uncertainty.

This is especially true for the two most critical pillars of U.S. policy in the Pacific: Japan and Australia.

Tokyo and Canberra have traditionally served as the north-south anchors of Washington's alliance network in Asia, and the synergies between them -- both economic and geopolitical -- have matured and converged substantially over the past decade.

Both sides are also increasingly wary of U.S. protectionist rhetoric -- hallmarked by Trump's executive order withdrawing Washington from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement -- and its potential retrenchment from the region.

Amidst this geostrategic backdrop, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made his first overseas trip this year to key countries in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines) and Australia. While each relationship has its unique bilateral characteristics, Abe's trip revealed a broad strategic view of the importance of U.S. allies speaking out in the current climate of uncertainty.

During his trip to Australia, Abe and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pushed back on protectionist and anti-globalist sentiments by stressing that both countries will remain "leading voices for an open global trading environment that contributes to inclusive economic growth, higher living standards and more jobs." Meanwhile, Canberra and Tokyo pointed to the importance of the TPP despite Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. support.

The two sides differ, however, on how to approach the deal's future. Australia has been leading a push to forge ahead with "TPP 11," which would seek to salvage a deal among the 11 remaining members. Japan remains less optimistic on the economic and strategic value of a TPP minus Washington, and is more anxious about the opening that the failure of the deal provides to China.

Beijing is looking to push forward a suite of Chinese-backed economic initiatives, deals and institutions such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a multilateral trade deal proposed by the 10-country Association of Southeast Nations that would include China, Australia, Japan, India, South Korea and New Zealand.

Australia and Japan are also forging ahead with a growing defense and security relationship -- despite disappointment in Tokyo at Canberra's rejection in 2016 of a Japanese bid to build new submarines for Australia. During Abe's visit, the two sides finalized a revised Acquisition and Cross Servicing Arrangement that takes into account new Japanese security legislation, passed last year.

The renewed ACSA facilitates logistical support between the Australian Defense Forces and Japan's Self Defense Forces, complementing a pre-existing pact on military information sharing, and helps to open the door for more joint exercises and military exchanges.

Despite some divergence on how to respond to Trump and his "America First" worldview, Canberra and Tokyo are largely singing from the same sheet of music and are now presented with a unique opportunity to persuade Washington to remain engaged in the region. There are several key areas in which they should push for such convergence.

Networked security

First, Japan and Australia should emphasize, through bilateral and multilateral interactions with Trump, the importance of networked security in the region. This is essential both because the region is blanketed with potential security flashpoints, ranging from the Korean peninsula to the East and South China Seas, and because it is important to sustain a security architecture similar to the trans-Atlantic environment, where the U.S. partners European nations in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Canberra and Tokyo are in a unique position to influence Washington because of their longstanding bilateral alliances with the U.S. and their very successful trilateral partnership -- embodied through the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue -- which remains the gold standard for networked security in the region.

Second, Japan and Australia should continue to coordinate their policies and approaches on maritime security and adherence to international law. Both Canberra and Tokyo should press the Trump administration to insist that an international court ruling last year that debunked Beijing's expansive claims in the South China Sea must be respected and cannot be ground to dust by Chinese diplomatic bullying of ASEAN.

The U.S., Japan and Australia -- in addition to numerous other states -- rely on open sea lines of communication in the South China Sea. Protecting the integrity of the region's markets and security should present a clear sense of purpose for America's strongest Asia-Pacific allies.

Third, in addition to rhetorical and political synergies on regional security matters, Japan and Australia should cooperate more closely -- bilaterally, trilaterally with the U.S., and potentially even quadrilaterally with the U.S. and India -- on providing capacity building to the ASEAN region, especially as it pertains to maritime security and law enforcement.

This has been a priority for all sides over the past few years, and Abe's trip to Southeast Asia was largely focused on maritime security assistance to the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia. The next step is to regularize an exchange of plans and information with like-minded partners -- such as Canberra, Washington and even New Delhi -- to ensure that duplication is avoided and a common strategy is followed.

Fourth, Japan and Australia should ramp up cooperation in key regional multilateral forums, including the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping.

This approach serves a dual purpose. It will ensure that the two sides advocate for common positions on economic rules and security architecture. At the same time, they can prioritize their synergies with Washington to make the case for sustained U.S. leadership in a region where governance and the rule of law -- from a multilateral perspective -- appears to be crumbling.

Enhancing these synergies will demonstrate a strong and unified approach that supports the current regional order and opposes a forceful change to the status quo. But aside from these tangible steps and diplomatic efforts, Canberra and Tokyo must also look to elevate the argument on the importance of liberal and open trade and a rules-based order by raising the issue in forums that are not restricted to the Asia-Pacific.

Japan, for example, can speak out at meetings of the Group of Seven largest economies. Australia can play a similar role in the Group of 20 largest economies. Now is the time, amidst great uncertainty, for Washington's two most critical Pacific allies to step up to the plate.

Jonathan Berkshire Miller is a senior fellow specializing in East Asia at the EastWest Institute, an organization focused on conflict resolution, in New York.

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