A number of recent policy documents signal the Australian Government’s intent to deepen defence engagement in the Asia–Pacific, and future defence policy statements are likely to reinforce that objective. The Australia in the Asian century White Paper clearly established Asia as our primary economic and strategic focus. Australia’s first National Security Strategy gave as the first of its three priorities ‘strengthening regional engagement to support security’, and the 2013 Defence White Paper—released in May 2013—sets out an ambitious plan to strengthen defence relations with Japan.
There are several factors working to make the strategic environment more uncertain for Australia and other countries in the Asia–Pacific. First, and more quickly than was expected, there’s been the emergence of a sharper-toned China–US strategic competition. Military-to-military relations, in particular, are difficult. Second, there’s a curious blending of elements of cooperation and competition in Asia–Pacific affairs. The region’s tied together by economic and trade relations, but in important respects there’s an absence of trust between countries, particularly on military matters. Third, a number of middle-sized powers are emerging with stronger voices on security matters, particularly Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, India and even Australia. Fourth, there’s been a broad increase in the capabilities of many regional military forces and with it the growing risk of military incidents, particularly in the maritime domain. Taken together, these developments point to an increasingly complex region where competitive multipolarity is the defining characteristic of international engagement.
Even with an ensured American presence, because Australia’s resources are limited we can’t hope to achieve all of our strategic objectives in the region without engaging other players and finding innovative ways to develop a cooperative approach to building security. As the most capable of American partners in the region, Japan offers much as a closer partner to Australia. The bilateral relationship’s already strong—Japan’s now one of our closest Asian security partners.