To summarise Professor White’s thesis in a few sentences; Japan fears a resurgent China and a weakened US presence in Asia, and is casting around for other allies to counteract this strategic shift. Australia, as it has similarities in values to Japan, seems a natural partner, and has been willing to explore closer defence ties with Japan. Yet this is not really in Australia’s interests, as Australia would gain nothing by being dragged into a conflict with China to protect Japan’s sovereignty. Japan’s interests and Australia’s are not close enough to justify a defensive alliance.
On this particular issue I must say that I don’t really agree with Professor White, and I would be interested to know whether any of Japan’s own strategic analysts see things in quite the same way (more research necessary on my part). While there may be no need for an alliance, that does not rule out the possibility for more agreements for greater levels of intelligence sharing, or joint exercises, or weapons development, or a whole range of co-ordinated initiatives for improving defence ties between both nations. One might call this providing the foundations for any future defence alliance (which White himself acknowledges might become necessary should the US withdraw from Asia and China become more belligerent) while keeping things on a more benign footing vis-à-vis China.
The US would certainly welcome such a development, and may in fact encourage both sides to explore their strategic options with a mind to boosting their bilateral capabilities (technologically from the Australian standpoint, operationally from that of Japan). While not an alliance, the fact that both sides would be co-ordinating their military responses to regional crises (be they humanitarian or strategic) would ultimately prove beneficial to the region as a whole.
If Australia did not see any benefit from having ties with Japan, then the approaches made by the Howard government would never have occurred, no agreements or memorandums would have been signed by both Coalition and Labor governments, indeed we would not now be discussing the potential for Australia to benefit from Japanese submarine technology. To their credit, Australian governments have recognised that Japan represents a stable partner in a region fraught with uncertainties. While its political classes are not exactly progressive, politically it is stable, with a modern, highly capable military force, considerable economic power, and a willingness to embrace international laws and regulations in pursuit of its interests.
Ultimately both Australia and Japan have an interest in preserving regional stability. China is threatening to destabilise that stability through its refusal to participate in multilateral discussions with its neighbours on security issues. We are already aligned with Japan in our realisation that to ignore or placate China’s position will ultimately invite further provocation from China. Furthermore, given the opaque nature of Chinese politics and the possibility for instability within China, trying to create a consensus on regional security with such a nation may ultimately prove futile. As such, Australia needs the assurances of its neighbours in order to guarantee its security, neighbours that share Australia’s own ambitions for the region and is stable and capable enough of achieving them. Japan is such a nation, and so the more we cooperate with them the more we will benefit from them as partners, if not as allies.