Response to Rory Medcalf’s “Balancing Act” Image Credit: Wikimedia commons

Response to Rory Medcalf’s “Balancing Act”

AFA11 The March of Autocracy

This correspondence is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.

In his essay on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (AFA10: Friends, Allies and Enemies), Rory Medcalf portrays the Quad as a minilateral grouping whose primary role is to counterbalance China in Asia and the Indo-Pacific. Medcalf describes the decisive part Japan’s former prime minister Shinzō Abe played in facilitating a Quad comeback, and his Indo-Pacific activism, as “asserting Japan’s strategic normality”. In fact, Japan’s evolving Indo-Pacific strategy is anything but normal. As the Quad develops more heft, Australia must fully appreciate the nature and extent of Japan’s strategic ambition in the Indo-Pacific.

Quad 1.0 was grounded in the ideas articulated in Abe’s speech to the Indian parliament in August 2007. There, Abe unveiled what was to become his foreign policy mantra during his second term in office (2012–20). The rhetoric of liberal internationalism dominated, with references to “the arc of freedom and prosperity” and the relationship between maritime security and democratic values. The situating of Japan–India defence cooperation in an Indo-Pacific region that stretched from the east coast of the United States to Africa, together with the notion of “maritime democracies”, became integral to Abe’s vision for an expanded role for Japan. Whether it was called the “arc”, the “security diamond” or the “free and open Indo-Pacific” (as Abe’s policy termed it), Abe was determined to project an image of Japan as a champion of liberal internationalism, and a protector of the “global commons”.

Even in this first Quad, Japan’s ambition to help contain China’s behaviour was clear. It was not a matter of “balancing” so much as shaming. Abe wanted Japan to be regarded internationally as a more desirable and ethical partner than China, whether in security, trade, finance, aid or infrastructure development.

Abe’s foreign policy vision also included Japan being a future rule-maker, instead of merely a rule-abider. The Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI) – a globally focused development scheme worth US$110 billion, conceived as a kind of counterweight to China’s Belt and Road – was aimed at ensuring this. The plan, which Japan announced at the G7 summit it hosted in 2016, doesn’t match the Belt and Road in dollar terms, but it utilises Japan’s reputational advantage over China, forming coalitions of like-minded nations (such as the Blue Dot Initiative, comprising Japan, Australia and the United States) to ensure the quality, sustainability and transparency of infrastructure-related development assistance in Asia. To date, EPQI projects have included the Mumbai–Ahmedabad high–speed rail project in India, the North–South Commuter Railway project in the Philippines and the Asia–Africa Growth Corridor concept.

The striking aspect of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy – issued in 2016, and subsequently defined as a “vision” – was that it combined a geographically expanded foreign policy that encompassed the Indo-Pacific with a less constrained security stance. In this way, Japan’s foreign policy activism became an enabler for its security policy. An important part of this approach is creating a successful defence equipment and technology export industry. Instead of having to hide behind the banner of assisting regional neighbours in the para-military sphere through the auspices of a defence aid program (such as donating patrol boats to the Philippines coast guard), the provision of military goods to regional nations for a military purpose indirectly serves to legitimise Japan’s defence-related actions to both regional and domestic constituencies.

From this perspective, the reborn Quad is a perfect facilitator for Japan’s enhanced ambitions. The Quad, especially the Quad-Plus variant that includes dialogues with Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand, will assist Japan to normalise the export of defence equipment and technology to those countries that are – to quote Japan’s 2015 security policy legislation – “in a close relationship with Japan”. Japan’s commitment to this approach was demonstrated by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s decision to make his first overseas visit to Vietnam. During this visit, in October 2020, Suga secured a deal to supply Japanese patrol planes and radar equipment to Vietnam. Japan has subtly shifted its rhetoric from an emphasis on “maritime democracies” to a “rules-based order” – a change specifically designed to enable it to work with regional partners such as Vietnam, which do not fit so neatly into the “maritime democracies” category. It is no accident that respective statements issued after Quad 2.0 ministerial meetings likewise have featured rhetoric that is more inclusive. Japan’s foreign minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, highlighted the agreement among Quad members on the importance of “broadening cooperation with more countries” to achieve peace and prosperity in the region after COVID-19; Australia’s counterpart, Marise Payne, pointed to the need for stronger cooperation with regional partners and institutions, including in quality infrastructure investment; and India’s external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, referred to the “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific” as a place where enhanced connectivity and infrastructure development were a priority.

Before Abe’s second term in office, “normal” for Japan would have meant avoiding defence and security activism, and limiting its global ambition to initiatives around climate change, international aid and disaster relief. Keeping the United States engaged in the defence of Japan and Asia would have meant focusing on sub-alliance networking, such as with Australia, rather than forging deep security relationships with non-US allies such as India and Vietnam.

But the evolution of the Quad, and Japan’s foreign and security policy activism, signal that it is moving beyond a desire to be just a rule-keeper. Instead, it wants to be a key player in envisioning new multilateral arrangements in the Indo-Pacific that are not wholly dependent on United States leadership. This represents the new normal for Japanese security policy.

As Australia deepens its security relations with Japan, it should be mindful of this shift in Japan’s ambition. Australia no longer needs to cajole a reluctant Japan to perform a more proactive security role in the region via the safe haven of a multilateral gathering. Rather, it has a like-minded partner in the Indo-Pacific that is willing to lead, and capable of leading, multilateral endeavours such as the Quad-Plus in the security sphere.

Rikki Kersten is a Canberra-based researcher and analyst, and professor emerita at Murdoch University.

Read Rory Medcalf’s response here.  

AFA11 The March of Autocracy

This is correspondence to Australian Foreign Affairs 10: Friends, Allies and Enemies. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.

This correspondence is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy.