Japan and Australia
Age, 7 March 2005

Armed forces from Australia and Japan have taken turns at protecting each other for nearly 100 years. These dealings are but threads through the shifting pattern of alignments among the empires of Britain, Japan and United States. Their future influence on China is the angle from which the coming collaboration of Australian soldiers with Japanese engineers in Iraq should be viewed.

The story begins in 1902 with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. Over the next ten years, the Admiralty relied more and more on the Japanese to take care British interests in East Asia. 

The new Commonwealth did not much care for the Mother’s Country’s latest ally. In 1908, Prime Minister Alfred Deakin invited the U. S. to send its “Great White Fleet” to Australia, a signal of disapproval to London and a warning to Tokyo. The Labor government inaugurated the Royal Australian Navy in 1910-11.

In August 1914, Japan seized German concessions in China and its Pacific possessions north of the equator.

During November, Japan’s Ibuki escorted the ANZAC convoy to the Middle East. Its commander wanted the honour of sinking the German light cruiser, the Emden, altering course of his more powerful battle-cruiser to run between it and the light cruiser HMAS Sydney.

Tokyo was anxious to contribute to the war effort in order to strengthen its hand in the peace settlement. In April 1916, the British government raised that prospect to spur Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes into his two failed attempts to introduce conscription for overseas service.

At Versailles in 1919, Hughes got all his way by keeping the Japanese north of the equator. During the inter-war years, military connections were overtaken by economic relations. Japan’s purchase of wool to clothe its army in China pulled the Australian economy out of the 1930s depression. The export of pig-iron to Japan in 1938 left Prime Minister Bob Menzies with a nick-name.

No sooner did hostilities cease on 15 August 1945 than Lord Mountbatten integrated 35,000 Japanese troops into his Command to repress independence fighters across Indonesia, a joint campaign which lasted until November 1946.

Meanwhile, Australia had taken the lead in the British Occupation of Japan. Those forces were among the first into the Korean war in late June 1950. The U.S. waged that war as much to keep Japan in the anti-Communist orbit as to hold onto South Korea. Hence, Australian forces were indirectly defending Japan while Washington was rehabilitating convicted Class “A” war criminals to help out in its hot Cold War.

Mao’s declaration of the Peoples Republic of China on 1 October 1949 intensified Washington’s determination to finalise a Peace Treaty with Japan so that it could play its part as the northern anchor in the containment of communism.  

At the same time, Britain pressured Australia to send forces to the Middle East, for the fourth time since 1884. Menzies accepted that the Empire’s hold on the Suez Canal was an economic and strategic necessity for Australia. However, he also knew that the Labor Party could play the “Japan card” at elections due before the end of 1952. Canberra therefore urged the chief U. S. negotiator, John Foster Dulles, to provide a statement of support to console Australian voters. The upshot was the ANZUS Treaty, signed on 1 September 1951, only days before Australia agreed to the Peace Treaty in San Francisco.

Dulles saw ANZUS Treaty as a temporary concession. His real objective, pursued as Secretary of State from 1953, was for a NATO-type alliance along the great crescent from Japan around towards Turkey. All he managed to wangle was the charade of South-East Asia Treaty Organisation in 1954.

Nonetheless, the ANZUS Treaty did involve Australia with the defence of Japan since Article V reads: “an armed attack on any of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on … its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific”. For as long as U.S. forces remain in Japan, Australia will be expected to do its duty towards the Japanese.

Of course, any treaty is, as Dulles pointed out in 1952, only as relevant as the extent to which its wording expresses what the signatories would do anyway, in their own interests.

The significance of Canberra’s most recent commitment is not for its effect on the latest attempt to occupy Iraq.

Infinitely more important is what Australia’s mite could contribute to the determination by the Japanese government to subvert the “no-war” Clause 9 in the Constitution that General Macarthur imposed on Japan in 1947.

Japan has re-armed long since, but only for self-defence. Its navy and air force have next-to-no capacity to project power beyond its maritime boundaries.

A referendum to alter, let alone remove, that prohibition would unleash political outrage in Japan, and around its neighbours. Far worse, a rebuff at the polls would put the revisionists’ plans back for another generation, or more. Hence, Tokyo’s scheme is to extend overseas involvements by the Self Defence Forces (SDF), and then to use those activities to claim that each additional step is in accord with previously permitted actions. Eventually, the government will be able to declare that the old interpretation of Clause 9 has become inoperable.

Tokyo’s despatch of SDF engineers to Iraq is another throw in this game. John Howard took Australian sensibilities about the treatment of prisoners of war into consideration. A bigger electoral headache would be a perception that he has helped Japan to elude its no-war constitution.

Australians have no reason to be alarmed by Japanese Militarism, which is as dead as General Tojo. A potent force for pacifism is the Japanese budget, which is so far in the red that Tokyo will be hard pressed to meet its current commitments to home island defence.

Rather, attention should be paid to how Beijing will respond to any drift from Japan’s self-defence posture. The coming re-engagement of Australian with Japanese forces should be evaluated in terms of how unsettling the balance of power in East Asia will affect regional security.