Security red flags are flying in the faces of Australia and Japan. China’s attempt to sign a security agreement with the Solomon Islands, enhanced military patrols near the Senkaku Islands, and excessive displays of force towards Taiwan should be enough to spur the two middle powers into action. Thus far, both powers have been reluctant to play a larger security role in regional groupings like the Quad. That must change.
Security cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands should have come as no surprise. Since 2013, China has been luring the Pacific island states through its Belt and Road Initiative projects, followed by prompts to switch recognition from Taiwan to China, and finally entering into a security pact that may potentially allow China to deploy its police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces. While the agreement may not breach the sovereign rights of the Solomon Islands, visits by Chinese vessels for replenishment and research may lead to surveillance on Australian ships and disruption to its sea lines of communication.
Although Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare has assured Canberra that “Australia remains our partner of choice, and we will not do anything to undermine Australia’s national security,” it was countered by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, who indirectly challenged Australia that the Solomon Islands should not be seen as the “backyard” of any country, let alone Australia.
Since the 1950s, China has considered Taiwan as part of its mainland and has initiated several measures to annex it. In 1995, China vowed to attack Taiwan, for this thousands of troops were flown in Fujian province across the Taiwan Strait. While the use of force by Beijing has yet to occur, China has attempted several coercive measures to unify Taiwan with the mainland. Chinese president Xi Jinping reiterated in 2021 that “resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China” and warned the West that no one should underestimate Chinese resolve in defending their national sovereignty. Occurring daily and often during U.S military drills, Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone is repeatedly violated. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased fears of similar action in Taiwan. Japan’s position as being willing to defend Taiwan, evidenced by Japanese deputy defense minister Yasuhide Nakayama’s statement at the Hudson Conference last June, puts Japan in the difficult position of having to back up those statements with force potential.
Japan’s clashes with China over the Senkaku Islands between 2010 and 2012 revealed Beijing’s expansionist policies in line with its growing power. Conflict with Taiwan will inevitably have a major impact on Japan’s security. In this regard, former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga raised the issue of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait at different platforms including at the Japan-Australia 2+2 joint statement and in its latest annual white paper, Defense of Japan 2021.
Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific is incongruent with a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and injurious to a fragile balance of power in the region. Australia and Japan, facing similar geostrategic challenges, need to develop common strategies in line with their alliance with the United States and India in the Quad. However, the Quad is in its inception stage and American presence in the Indo-Pacific region has been sparse.
While the Obama administration limited itself to the rhetoric of the “pivot,” the Trump administration put the burden of retaining alliances on partners, even asking South Korea and Japan to pay for the cost of the defense umbrella. Although the Biden administration has reinforced American commitment to the Indo-Pacific, it lacks the pace and energy at which the Chinese are currently asserting themselves.
Against this backdrop, Australia and Japan, two major democracies and economic powers have come forth and developed a Special Strategic Partnership, to enhance their respective defence capabilities and also signed a Reciprocal Access Agreement, which boosts the interoperability of the two countries’ security forces with the provision to deploy military personnel in each other’s territory including the carrying of advanced weaponry. In addition, the provision of annual Foreign and Defence Ministers (2+2) meetings has enhanced the Australia–Japan partnership as the closest and most mature in Asia. These agreements are critical in deterring China and supplementing the “hub and spoke” policy of American forces that operate on a bilateral basis with Indo-Pacific partners.
Despite increased cooperation and understanding of the challenges faced by the two countries, it appears that Australia feels more comfortable in operating in consonance with the United States. For example, to checkmate excessive Chinese incursions, Canberra opened its territory for establishment of the U.S. Army Rotational Taskforce, and also signed on to AUKUS for the nuclearization of its submarines. Whereas Japan is pushing an increasingly concerned public to amend its long-standing pacifist constitution, to allow Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to provide material support to allies or to host U.S nuclear weapons.
Australia and Japan are resident powers in the Indo-Pacific and face similar security and strategic challenges. Yet instead of relying excessively on the United States they should become a more regional force—a regional hub rather than just the spokes. Despite the possibility of the deployment of American forces to the region, Australia and Japan should act as a regional shield in order to maintain the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. To do this, they must further strengthen bilateral ties as well as take into confidence other major democracies like India, Indonesia, and countries that intend to retain the postwar status quo, while supporting a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Dalbir Ahlawat is a senior lecturer at the Department of Security Studies and Criminology, Macquarie University, Australia.
Mark S. Cogan is an associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Kansai Gaidai University based in Osaka, Japan and a former communications specialist with the United Nations.