Serving Japanese interests, Australian VFA with Japan will backfire
Serving Japanese interests, Australian VFA with Japan will backfire

The paper written by Li Lingfei, a senior research fellow with the Pangoal Institutionm, was published on Global Times (P15, 20180123), an English-language Chinese newspaper under the People's Daily

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's visit to Japan last week for annual leaders' talks with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe was meant to deepen military ties. Talks over dinner included the Korean Peninsula issue and security affairs in the Indo-Pacific region. Turnbull attended a meeting of Japan's National Security Council, and visited the Narashino Self-Defense Forces base. Most importantly, the two were close to inking the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

If letting Turnbull attend the National Security Council meeting was a crucial step by Japan for its quasi-ally, the signing of the VFA would come as further moves to substantially improve its special strategic partnership with Australia. The agreement will facilitate joint military drills, sending troops to each other, sharing military equipment and information, and paving the way to smoother defense ties.

There is concern that such a pact would trigger doubt and backlash from surrounding countries, notably China. Days ago, former Australian army chief Peter Leahy said, "Efforts need to be made to reassure Beijing an imminent defense agreement to boost cooperation between Australia and Japan is not aimed at containing China's rise."

However, even if Japan and Australia made such promise, it is deceptive. China has every reason to believe this is another move to contain it.

In recent years, the two countries have been resisting Beijing's activities in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. They supported the Philippines' tribunal verdict against China's claims in the South China Sea, criticized Beijing's policy and stance on various occasions, and called for Washington's expanded influence in Asia to impede China's rise.

Months ago, Australia, Japan, the US and India resumed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) in Manila ahead of the ASEAN Summit. During talks, Abe reiterated the "free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy," which calls for cooperation among countries in this region and the establishment of a rule-based order on the basis of common values and strategic interests. Though he did not mention China, it is obvious that Australia and Japan seek to rope in India and the US to check Beijing's regional influence.

This is a two-pronged strategy. For one, Washington will shrink its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region and let China wield greater influence. Second, they regard China as a saboteur rather than a creator of the order. Based on this, they neither accept a rising China nor believe China can develop into a responsible nation and become their like-minded partner.

Now that China is confident of its national strength and is willing to provide public goods for the international community, how can a strategy seeking to thwart its advance and isolate China finally work? For China, a country that has all along been fighting for opening-up and inclusive cooperation, the strategy will bring increasingly fierce competition, confrontation and even conflict.

China is also concerned that the VFA may constitute an important step in Japan's effort to expand its military presence overseas and ultimately revise its pacifist constitution.

Australia is not unfamiliar with such agreements as it has similar pacts with many countries including the US.

The deal, however, is the first of its kind for Japan. Once signed, the agreement will likely give Japan a push for exporting its military power.

Since 2014, Abe has seen developing ties with Australia as a breakthrough in its overseas military expansion and has made efforts to push forward the agreement. Over the past year, he added momentum to the process to finalize the deal while consolidating his cabinet.

It is expected that Tokyo will hold joint drills with Canberra once the deal is inked and will negotiate a similar one with the UK by the end of this year.

Australia might like to serve as a stepping stone for Japan's revision of its pacifist constitution for its own interest. But the consequence it has to bear will not just emerge from China's doubt and discontent.

The author is a senior research fellow with the Pangoal Institution.

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