2019 will be one of signature years for Australia-Japan relations (in a way that 2007 and 2014 were) if there is a change in government in Australia, and equally if both sides do get the RAA done and dusted. While Labor has always maintained a fairly healthy relationship with Japan, and is committed to continuing the momentum built up over the past few years, whether it remains as enthusiastic about the relationship remains to be seen.
The topic of parliamentary party relations with Japan is something that has become an interest to me, and prompted me to take a look at some of the agreements made between both countries over the past 40 years. The end result of that is the list below:
Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement (JAEPA)
Agreement Concerning the Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology
Information Sharing Agreement
Defence Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement
Memorandum of Understanding on International Development Cooperation
Convention on Taxation
Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation
Australia-Japan Social Security Agreement
Australia-Japan Partnership Agenda
Joint Declaration on the Australia-Japan Partnership
Australia-Japan Nuclear Energy Cooperation Agreement
Australia-Japan Scientific Research Cooperation Agreement
Basic Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation (the Nara Treaty)
Australia-Japan Cultural Agreement
Australia-Japan Agreement on Commerce
While the above chart presents a fairly simplified visual key to the course of bilateral relations (as some of the agreements were initiated under Labor only to be finalized under the Coalition, while the same could be said about the Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan), what is evident is most of the historical agreements between both countries have been reached under a Coalition/LDP government alignment. The question then arises as to why this is the case. Is the Coalition more ideologically aligned with the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, thus leading to the higher level of agreements created when both of those governments have been in power, or have other factors played a role in this state of affairs? Note that of the above agreements, the only one that was reached without the LDP was that in December 2011, when the DPJ briefly ruled in its own right before being removed in December 2012.
This question really goes to a broad range of factors affecting the bilateral relationship, but also to the nature of political parties in both countries. It also points to the political leadership in both countries and the ideology of the individual leaders or members of cabinet. To get to the root of this issue, it would be necessary to delve into the background of negotiations behind the agreements, to see how they were regarded by either side at the time. Another issue of note is to examine whether the agreements themselves substantially impacted on the bilateral relationship, leading, for example, to greater levels of co-operation, which itself would indicate how dedicated either side was to promoting bilateral ties.
Of particular note (from an Australian perspective) is how the relationship was regarded by successive Japanese governments. While Japan and Australia have co-operated with one another for over 60 years, most of this co-operation was concentrated in the trade arena, which until recently was the dominant factor in bilateral relations. It is only the emergence of China as a regional power and the relative stagnation of the US commitment to this part of the world that has prompted the new enthusiasm for security ties between both countries.
Another factor that would need to be considered is the history of political attitudes to labour relations in both countries, which could be another factor that has determined how closely each government felt it could work with either their Japanese or Australian counterpart. While the immediate postwar period saw an increase in union representation in Japan, that was superseded by the ‘boom years’ in which corporate interests were given priority in exchange for job security, with the gradual loss of influence in corporate decision making that came with this development.
One further matter is that of environmental concerns. Labor was, of course, the party that decided to take Japan to the ICJ in order to have its scientific whaling program declared illegal under international law, a point that has not been forgotten in the halls of Nagata-chō. While Japan is still reliant on Australian exports of raw materials to meet its energy needs, particularly coal and gas, the gradual social movement towards renewable energy in Australia, and Labor’s enthusiastic embrace of that technology, might impact on the trading relationship, especially if Labor decides to use legislation to curb gas exports to (rather optimistically) lower electricity prices in Australia. While there is little indication that Labor would follow through with this, it has been raised by Labor leader Bill Shorten in the past, and there is every reason to think that the policy could be revisited if Labor win power and find themselves being hemmed by electricity concerns.
So there is much to expect in 2019, and hopefully it will mean an enhanced rather than a diminished bilateral relationship. What will be assured is the continued need of both countries to keep the US focused on this region, and on that there will be no let-up in consultation and joint action. In the meantime all I can offer is to wish you, the reader, the very best in the year to come.