Australia-Japan Reciprocal Access Agreement improves security for both

The region of direct strategic consequence for Australia to our northwest will be increasingly dominated by an unpredictable China in the coming decades. All agreements and treaties with a security focus help offset Australia’s vulnerabilities since we are a huge island continent with a tiny population a long way from any aid if things go bad.  The January 6 signing of the RAA with Japan is therefore another welcome building block that comes on top of existing structures such as ANZUS and the Five Power Defence Agreement.

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Helicopter carrier JS Kaga departs Darwin.

However, we have not entered into anything approaching a mutual security guarantee to come to each other’s defence in a time of conflict.  The essence of the RAA is to permit greater cooperation between the armed forces of the countries, particularly regarding joint training and potentially basing.  These types of deals – which are not common – are highly legalistic and difficult to negotiate.  This is because at their heart is the notion that the citizens of one country are shielded from the laws of the host nation where they happen to be based.

This has been a vexed issue between the US and Japan for decades, particularly regarding Okinawa.  This has been a major US facility since the Second World War, with 32 separate bases covering about a quarter of the island.  The local people want the whole thing shut down – and occasionally service personnel stationed there commit crimes.  Because of the status of forces agreement in place, an accused US service member is not tried under Japanese law but by their own system.  The perception – justified or not – is that the US treats criminals far more leniently than the Japanese do and that even gaining convictions is harder because of differing rules of evidence.

This cuts both ways and service personnel stationed abroad would find life awkward unless they were held accountable to the standards of their own country and not the one in which they were based – though they certainly need to be aware of local does and don’ts.  While we do not know the finer detail of the RAA, it has presumably found an acceptable solution to this problem where if Australian personnel misbehave on Japanese territory – and vice versa – they will be held to account according to the laws of the country of their citizenship.

As tedious as this might sound, it has now cleared the way for more joint exercises – either bilateral or broader – and even opens the way for shared basing.  In the context of submarine operations, Australian Collins class boats based in Japan would be much closer to the South China Sea than from Fremantle, saving several days of transit time.  The same is true for other naval and air assets, which might also be important for humanitarian and disaster relief operations.

Though the agreement is welcome, a note of caution needs to be injected regarding the reactions in the rest of Asia.  China of course is entirely negative, seeing this as yet another part of the grand plot to encircle their country and derail Beijing’s inevitable progress towards regional domination.  This is to be expected and one day hopefully the Politburo will be able to connect the dots and understand that aggression – for example against Taiwan – unsettles everyone and causes pushback in the form of greater security cooperation elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific.

But we also need to realise that a strengthened Japan is not to everyone’s taste either.  This is because memories of the Second World War are not so distant in Asia and many countries – particularly Korea and China – have experienced what a powerful, militarised Japan can do.  Much the same can be said of ASEAN nations as a guide on the Indonesian island of Sulewesi once remarked to the author, during three years of occupation Japan caused more harm and did greater damage than 300 years of Dutch colonialism.

Of course, Japan has changed a lot since then and is now a vibrant democracy and economic powerhouse.  What worries people is that it has never really been forced to come to terms with its appalling record – unlike Germany – and much of the Second World War has been airbrushed out of history with the subject barely touched on in schools.  The deaths of millions of innocent people at the hands of the Japanese military in generally appalling circumstances is even now only obliquely acknowledged by Tokyo.

Even worse, Japan experienced no territorial losses as a consequence of the war, apart from the Kurile islands overrun by the USSR – now Russia – in the final few days of fighting.  Germany had the whole of Prussia – its historic heartland – totally ethnically cleansed and transformed into the Kaliningrad oblast.  Silesia and Pomerania went to Poland; Alsace to France and the Sudetenland to Czechoslovakia.

On top of the millions of its own dead, Germany was punished for it aggression; Japan not so much.  The war criminals who were tried and executed are still venerated at the controversial shrine of Yasukuni.  The Senkaku Islands – claimed by China – remain Japanese; the Korean Dokdo Islands are still claimed by Tokyo, which also wants the Kuriles back – and so on.

Enhanced security for Australia is a good thing – but we need to remember that the consequences of strengthening relations with one country might not be seen as quite such a positive by others.  We should also not forget that complex treaty arrangements were one of the causes of the First World War, where aggression against one – Serbia in that case – led to several chain reactions of other nations being drawn in almost against their will, such as Britain.

When it comes to international relations, studying history is always better than trying to live in the moment. Hopefully, China will start to change direction back to a peaceful, stable and cooperative regional partner and everyone can relax.



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