Australian Financial Review

Why Japan Is a Good Business Partner for AUKUS

Beyond its technical capabilities, Tokyo’s strategic seriousness about the China threat is the biggest asset it will bring to the agreement.

Senior Fellow
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visits the a nickel refinery with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on October 22, 2022, in Perth, Australia. (Richard Wainwright via Getty Images)
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visits the a nickel refinery with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on October 22, 2022, in Perth, Australia. (Richard Wainwright via Getty Images)

In any business deal, possible financial and other technical synergies are not the only things that matter. Knowing the intentions and interests of your partner is just as important.

How critical is the success of the partnership to their plans and interests? Can they afford to fail or walk away from the agreement?

This is how one should understand the announcement that formal talks will begin with Japan to possibly join AUKUS, the military-technology sharing agreement between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia.

The likelihood is that Japan will be invited to take part in Pillar II of the pact, which deals with developing asymmetrical weapons such as faster missiles, unmanned systems, offensive cyber capabilities, and military applications for artificial intelligence and quantum computing – but not nuclear-powered submarines, which is an exclusive Pillar I concern.

Why begin with Japan rather than another Five Eyes intelligence member such as Canada or New Zealand, which have both expressed interest?

There is the important matter of capabilities and contribution. The first principle of partnership is that new entrants must bring something valuable to the table. Japan is one of the leading countries in areas such as AI, robotics, and quantum computing. As one of the most technically advanced countries in the world, Japan will fill some important gaps in the development of asymmetrical and cutting-edge weapons.

Now, the part about interests, intentions and commitment. AUKUS is very much about constraining China. Apart from Taiwan, Japan is the country that is at the front line of Chinese coercion more than any other.

Last year, China set a record for incursions into the contiguous zone (22 to 44 kilometres) around the Japanese Senkaku Islands. (China and Taiwan also claim the uninhabited islands as their own.) In 2023, 1287 Chinese military and paramilitary vessels operated in this contiguous zone for 352 days. This is on top of the economic coercion that Japan suffers at the hands of China periodically.

It is the  Japanese strategic response which is the key. Rather than be cowed and retreat into a crouch position, or instead of looking inward by pursuing some version of a prickly hedgehog strategy which would only leave it more isolated and vulnerable, Japan has done the opposite of what Beijing previously expected. Tokyo is looking outward to secure its security.

Since the second term of Shinzo Abe from 2012, Japan has emerged as the most influential strategic and military player among Asian nations when it comes to putting constraints on and deterring further Chinese aggression.

More broadly, the aspiration and objective of defending a free and open Indo-Pacific, which has been adopted by the US and Australia, had Japanese roots. Without the Japanese outward awakening over the past decade, the US would have found it difficult to maintain its presence and relevance in the region.

It has become clear that Abe and the administrations that came after take the strategic and military challenge of China more seriously than any other US ally, and this includes Australia. More than any other Asian nation, Japan wants to be part of a collective solution, and is not for turning.

There is no ignoring geopolitical reality or opting out of the contest. Unlike Canada or New Zealand, there is unapologetic acceptance that hard power is required to change the calculations of countries such as China and North Korea.

This explains why we are on the cusp of JAUKUS (Japan plus AUKUS). In addition to bringing valuable assets to the table, AUKUS members can be sure that Tokyo is committed. The ultimate guarantee of this is that Japan cannot afford to fail when an opportunity presents itself to join an arrangement that enhances its security and offers Tokyo a much sought after broader role in regional affairs.

For Japan, collective efforts to deter China is not an abstract notion but an urgent requirement for its own sovereign existence.

There are ongoing and legitimate concerns that Japanese standards of safeguarding secret information are not yet at the level of the AUKUS members. It is a risk-reward calculation that we must make, and that assessment is tilting towards including Japan. And if it occurs, Japan’s involvement in Pillar II will allow AUKUS members to directly assist Japan when it comes to improving the latter’s systems and culture of protecting information.

Finally, JAUKUS would be a compelling rebuttal to the notion that AUKUS was just some backward-looking Anglo-Saxon thing. It never was that. AUKUS arose because three countries with existing intelligence and military ties decided that Chinese aggression was a major problem, the global order was fraying, military power matters, and there was something that had to be done about it.

From a different culture and history, Japan has come to the same conclusion, and about its role in the world. Unlike the many diplomatic bodies in the Indo-Pacific, AUKUS is one which might make a difference in terms of altering the balance of power and putting constraints on Beijing. The possibility of Japan joining suggests AUKUS was and remains about the future and not the past.

Read in Financial Review.