Saturday, April 16, 2016

Strategy under the surface of the Australia–Japan sub deal

Already, such a possibility is creating debate, especially in Australia, about what the strategic partnership should appropriately be. Some analysts have suggested that the deal will lead to a much closer partnership and fear that this would generate a risk of entrapping Australia in Japan’s emerging strategic rivalry with China. Others have argued that Australia should make a decision only on the basis of cost and technical fit. Still others accept that wider strategic ramifications should be considered, but dispute that these would be purely negative. They cite the deal’s potential significance in underpinning the current security order led by the United States, an order which both countries support.

Continued growth in the Australia–Japan strategic partnership is, of course, not inevitable. Importantly, neither side officially proposes a deeper strategic partnership of this kind, even though some in Japanese policy circles and politics already view the relationship as moving towards a virtual or quasi-alliance.

But managing expectations and perceptions amongst the two countries’ policymakers and publics is becoming more difficult. The partnership has already likely run its course in terms of establishing policy coordination in ‘softer’ areas such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Without doubt, the relationship has deepened substantially since the historic 2007 Joint Declaration ‘affirming’ the partnership. Since then, the partnership has been upgraded, first to a ‘comprehensive’ partnership in 2008 and then to a ‘special’ partnership in 2014. The two countries now have an economic partnership agreement and also cooperate increasingly through the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD) they share with the US, which is an ally of both.

Japanese analyst Yusuke Ishihara identifies the security relationship’s increasing integration, along with a more competitive regional environment, as key factors making the management of expectations more difficult. But the problematic nature of the strategic partnership concept itself also complicates matters. Over the past decade, strategic partnerships have been a popular way for nations to protect or advance their security interests. They have multiplied due to their flexibility and adaptability (or ambiguity) as a form of diplomatic alignment. In the Asia Pacific, China, India, Japan, Australia and the United States have all been actively entering into these partnerships.

Yet, as Ian Hall and I have pointed out elsewhere, these partnerships can confuse as much as clarify. They can take multiple forms of commitment and can be established not only between friends and partners but also between rivals. Most importantly, they lack the clarity of formal alliances, which formally embody members’ commitments to mutual defence and deterrence. By contrast, the clearest summation of strategic partnerships is only that they involve ‘mutual expectations of some kind of policy coordination’.

This ambiguity has thus far allowed Australia and Japan to pursue an ‘ever closer union’ without having to explain fully the actual objectives of their partnership. But the utility of such an approach declines as new forms of cooperation, such as the potential submarine deal, create a sense of deepening partnership even without an accompanying rearticulation of the relationship. In turn, the scope for mutual misperception increases, raising the prospect of a misunderstanding as to what the partners are really promising.

Fears of entrapment are worrying, suggests Ishihara, because neither side has a desire to establish a formal alliance. But what does the idea of a ‘quasi-alliance’ imply about mutual defence commitments? How are this and other ambiguous terms, such as small ‘a’ alliance, understood in Tokyo and Canberra?

Entering an agreement on the submarine project without resolving such ambiguities, rather than strengthening the bilateral relationship in the future, may introduce new problems. Yet there is no clear solution. A properly ‘strategic’ partnership should be more like a formal alliance, with clear understandings as to the commitments involved. But this would constitute a major change in both countries’ strategic postures.

A limited but more transparent set of guidelines may reduce the risk of miscalculation within the partnership. Yet it is not obvious that such an approach would offset the impression of existing but hidden commitments implied by a long-term submarine agreement. Were Australia not to pursue the Japanese submarine option, these scenarios would be less pressing. Even so, such a decision would create new doubts as to whether the partnership had indeed stalled.

All this attests to the difficulty of trying to fill capability gaps while simultaneously solving broader strategic challenges. It also suggests that resolving such challenges on a bilateral basis will sharply tax policymakers’ patience and creativity. A deeper bilateral partnership makes greater sense within a more strategic trilateral framework with the US, through the TSD, although this entails further risks vis-à-vis China. Still, if Australia and Japan wish to extend their strategic partnership through the submarine deal and beyond, a more robust TSD may be unavoidable.

H. D. P. (David) Envall is Research Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University, and an honorary associate at La Trobe University.

No comments:

Post a Comment