Emerging triumphant from the ashes of the Second World War in Europe and the Pacific, the United States sought to establish a network of allies invested in the enduring post-war economic, political and strategic stability of the world – establishing an era of seemingly unencumbered “American Peace”.
Key to this post-war order was two critical relationships in the Indo-Pacific: the US-Japan and US-Australia relationships served as the major political, economic and strategic linchpins essential to ensuring the enduring stability and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific – until now. US President Donald Trump is now well renown for his mercurial approach to America’s position and responsibilities in the world and transactional attitude towards strategic relationships.
Further compounding this new political, economic and geo-strategic paradigm is the now all too common confrontational approach of the President towards potential economic and strategic competitors, namely China and Russia, while seeking to balance America’s enduring strategic responsibilities in the Middle East, Europe and Indo-Pacific.
This combination of factors has prompted many to question the altruistic commitment of the United States to maintaining global order – with the relationship between the United States and Japan now seemingly at the mercy of the mercurial President raising further questions for Australia and its long-term economic, political and strategic security in the Indo-Pacific.
Australia’s security and prosperity are directly influenced by the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, meaning Australia must be directly engaged as both a benefactor and leader in all matters related to strategic, economic and political security, serving as either a replacement or complementary force to the role played by the US – should the US commitment or capacity be limited.
Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at ASPI, described the impact of the increasingly distracted state of the United States, telling Defence Connect, “If war does break out between the United States and Iran, I would expect to see nations like Russia and China move to exploit a distracted US – with China’s moves likely to be made in the South China Sea.”
‘No change to relationship’: Japan
US President Trump and his Japanese counterpart, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, share a seemingly cordial, collaborative relationship – with the Asian power so far managing to avoid the wrath of the President as many US allies, particularly NATO allies, have in recent years. However, it appears that maybe at an end, with rumblings from the White House appearing to shed concerning light on the thinking of the now distracted US President and his feeling towards the US-Japan relationship.
Both Bloomberg and The Japan Times have publicised apparent musings from within the Oval Office about the relationship between the United States and Japan – with a focus on tearing up the post-Second World War treaty signed between the two nations, which ties the US to the Asian giant in the event that Japan is ever attacked.
Signed in 1951, the original US defence treaty with Japan, which was revised in 1960, grants the US the right to base military forces in Japan in exchange for the promise that America would defend the island nation should it be attacked – recognising the post-war limitations of Japan’s pacifist constitution.
Scrapping the treaty would risk the destruction of the regional security order, particularly in the Western Pacific, opening the door for the emerging global superpower China to fill the void as strategic benefactor, or, as has been witnessed recently in the South China Sea, begin to assert itself in a more aggressive manner.
Tearing up the treaty between the US and Japan would have further ramifications for other regional allies of the US – including Australia, South Korea and Taiwan, each of whom fall under the strategic umbrella of the United States and have sought to position themselves as firm allies, dependent on the enduring global dominance of the United States.
Moving quickly to quell fears, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, “There is no talk at all of a review of the Japan-US security alliance as has been reported in the media.”
Japan’s insurance policy
Despite assurances that the relationship between the two nations remains resolute, that can change at a moment’s notice – particularly given the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East and the increasing capacity of both China and Russia to directly challenge the capacity of the United States and its ability to act as the sole global economic, political and strategic benefactor.
Japan has closely followed both the modernisation of the Chinese armed forces and the increasing instability of the US, which has prompted the nation to respond with increased funding for the nation’s defence budget, expanding the capabilities of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) with plans to repeal the post-Second World War constitutional limitations and reinstate a power projection focused force structure and doctrine to be supported by Japan’s industrial capability to modernise and equip itself in the face of growing regional instability and tensions.
This has resulted in Japan pursuing a number of modernisation and recapitalisation programs, with a focus on acquiring a range of advanced American weapons systems and capability developments to support the maintenance of the US order in the Indo-Pacific.
This includes the modernisation and structural refit of the Izumo Class vessels to develop small aircraft carriers capable of supporting airwings of 28 rotary-wing aircraft, with capacity for approximately 10 “B” variant of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, with both 27,000-tonne vessels capable of supporting 400 marines.
Additionally, Japan has actively pursued a range of ballistic missile defence, force projection, cuber and anti-space capabilities, including:
- 91.6 billion yen purchase of six F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, with recent announcements identifying that Japan will operate a fleet of about 147 of the fifth-generation aircraft, 105 of the “A” variant and 42 of the “B” short-take-off, vertical landing variant for operation off the Izumo Class amphibious warfare ships
- 8.4 billion yen procurement of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk ISR unmanned aerial system
- 99.5 billion yen for the construction of two, multipurpose, compact destroyers
- 71.1 billion yen for the construction of a new Soryu Class attack submarine
- establishing an Airborne Warning and Control Wing within the JSDF
Questions for Australia
Despite Australia’s enduring commitment to the Australia-US alliance, serious questions remain for Australia in the new world order of President Donald Trump’s America, as a number of allies have been targeted by the maverick President for relying on the US for their security against larger state-based actors, which has seen the President actively pressuring key allies, particularly NATO allies, to renegotiate the deals.
For Australia, a nation defined by its relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker, regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geo-political, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.