The British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, during an interview with the Australian in May, described the AUKUS agreement as “the most significant multilateral defence partnership in generations”. Sunak, moreover, was open about the reason for the alliance: China becoming “increasingly authoritarian at home and assertive abroad”. Some will argue we have been here before. The South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) was founded in 1954, also driven by fears about the ambitions of Beijing. The alliance also included Australia, America and the UK—along with France, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan. All of its members, eventually, came to view SEATO as redundant. Dissolved in 1977, it never achieved the goal, first mooted by Vice-President Richard Nixon in the early 1950s, of becoming a Pacific NATO. Ironically, perhaps, it might be Japan, not yet a member of AUKUS, that will ensure that organisation does not follow the same disappointing trajectory as SEATO.
SEATO, unlike NATO, was a hard sell for the Americans. Only two South-East Asian nations, the Philippines and Thailand, were founding members. Pakistan was in Asia—but not South-East Asia. Besides, its adversary was India and not China. True, South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were granted “observer status” in the aftermath of France’s Vietnam War and the 1954 Geneva Accords, which partitioned Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel. Then again, it could be argued that America’s excessive focus on the Vietnam War, billions of dollars expended and more than 58,000 fatal casualties accrued, undercut any broader mission for SEATO. In any case, South Vietnam’s journey into oblivion was one reason SEATO lost all credibility and disbanded in 1977, two years after the fall of Saigon.
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SEATO would have gained more traction as a prospective Pacific NATO had there been a North-East Asia Treaty Organisation (NEATO)—South Korea, Japan and Taiwan (known then as the Republic of China)—to complement it. South Korea had reason enough to join a regional anti-communist pact, given that three million communist Chinese passed through the ranks of the invading People’s Volunteer Army during the Korean War. However, the enduring enmity between Koreans and the Japanese—Korea had been a colony of Imperial Japan from 1910 to 1945—thwarted such a development. Furthermore, Japan in the aftershock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and US/Commonwealth occupation was constitutionally and psychologically pacificist. Finally, Chiang Kai-shek’s island-nation, the third component of any potential NEATO, had already achieved a guarantee of security. On June 25/26, 1950, the day Kim Il-Sung’s Korean People’s Army invaded South Korea across the thirty-eighth parallel, President Truman sent the Seventh Fleet into the Straits of Taiwan. America, ultimately, found it simpler to make separate bilateral security deals with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. There would be no northern equivalent of SEATO.
But perhaps the main reason SEATO folded, more than the ending of America’s Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon in 1975, was the seismic shift in attitudes to the People’s Republic of China. Communism was no longer considered a single monolithic Marxist-Leninist entity scheming to bring down the West. Had not the Soviet Army and the People’s Liberation Army battled each other during the 1969 Sino-Soviet border dispute? And once Nixon brought Mao in from the cold in 1972, Beijing began to seem less like a bogeyman than a potential partner. China was not even North Vietnam’s key backer in the final stages of the war—that role was left to the Soviets. As an act of homage to Uncle Sam, China’s adaptable paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, went so far as to invade Vietnam in February 1979. Then, in October 1979, Deng crushed the Democracy Wall movement, terminating the so-called Beijing Spring and making it clear that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would—in the parlance of Vladimir Lenin—retain China’s “commanding heights”: control of the government, judiciary, secret police, army, finance, infrastructure, media, education and the rest. China would remain a tyrannical one-party state—the antithesis of the West—but Western corporations were welcome to invest in Deng’s Four Modernisations: agriculture, industry, defence, and science and technology. Western statesmen, along with Western academics and journalists, spoke blithely of Deng and his successors as liberalisers, people they could do business with, even after the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre.
The Four Modernisations project required foreign capital and technology from developed economies. As Yang Hengjun, a citizen of China who obtained his PhD in Australia, wrote for the Diplomat in 2014, Japan led the world on that score in the 1980s. This was long before China received its invitation to join the World Trade Organisation in 2001: “During his 1978 visit to Japan, Deng advocated developing friendly relations between the two countries, always with an eye to the future. When it came to Diaoyu Islands [or Senkaku Islands], Deng Xiaoping suggested shelving the dispute and leaving it to later generations since discussions over the matter would get nowhere.” The timing of Hengjun’s article, “Why China Still Needs Deng Xiaoping”, and its admonition that Beijing should not “abandon Deng’s productive approach” to foreign policy, reflects the unease that at least some China experts were starting to feel as early as 2014 about the rise and rise of Xi Jinping. After all, back in 1974, Deng had this to say in a UN address about a future China ruled by someone like Chairman Xi:
If one day China should change her colour and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression and exploitation, the people of the world should identify her as social imperialism, expose it, opposite it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.
Democratic Japan, in the light of Xi Jinping’s Leninist-imperialism (or social imperialism as per Deng), eventually began to respond to Beijing’s “bullying, aggression and exploitation”. In 2013, Xi established his self-styled East China Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) to enforce air control restrictions in the East China Sea, including the air space attendant to the Japanese-inhabited Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. In 2015, as a response to ADIZ and Chairman Xi’s Putinesque hubris, Shinzo Abe’s government announced a “re-interpretation” of Article 9 of Japan’s 1947 “pacifist constitution”. The Diet in Tokyo asserted the theoretical right to counter-attack any foreign power—Russia, North Korea (which started firing ballistic missiles over Japan in 1998) or China—that threatened to strike the homeland. Japan’s Self-Defence Forces, already on the way to becoming one of the more powerful armed forces in the world, now had the official go-ahead to take their lethality to another level. The Fumio Kishida government released its National Security Strategy in December 2022. The document names its three belligerent (and nuclear-armed) neighbours, Russia, North Korea and China, as not only a threat to the liberal international world order but a danger to the sovereignty of Japan itself. Given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, North Korea’s insistence on firing long-range missiles into the waters off Japan, and China’s assertion that it reserves the right to use force to re-unite Taiwan with People’s Republic of China (even if Taiwan has never been a part of the People’s Republic), the National Security Strategy—understandably—announced that Tokyo’s spending on defence would surge to 2 per cent of GDP by 2027. To re-purpose Napoleon: Russia, North Korea and China have awakened a sleeping giant.
Kishida’s Japan, as distinct from post-war Japan, is not only actively re-arming but seeking military partnerships across the board. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad), encompassing the US, Australia, India and Japan, was just the start of it. Michael Auslin, writing for Foreign Policy magazine in November 2022, has not been alone in calling for AUKUS to become JAUKUS, now that Tokyo is revolutionising its military capabilities and permitting those forces to pursue collective self-defence. Despite various governmental denials about its prospects, a de facto version is already happening. In January 2022, for instance, Tokyo and Canberra formerly established the Reciprocal Access Agreement, which allows for the seamless interoperability of Japan’s and Australia’s armed forces in military and humanitarian missions. Then, in January 2023, Fumio Kishida and Rishi Sunak signed a defence arrangement granting reciprocity of troop movements between their two countries. AUKUS, unlike SEATO, is acquiring a North-East Asia partner in all but name.
In late 2022, Japan and Britain (along with Italy) committed themselves to the Global Combat Air Program, a merging of their next-generation jet fighter projects. Japan’s expanding association with NATO was already evident in June last year when Kishida became the first Japanese prime minister to attend a North Atlantic alliance summit. Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs later released an Outcome Report disclosing Kishida’s promise to upgrade the Japan-NATO Individual Partnership with a focus on “cyber, emerging technologies and maritime security”. Kishida, the report also revealed, made this request at the summit: “In addition, we should press forward further with having NATO’s Asian-Pacific partners of Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea participate in NATO summits on a regular basis.” The latest news is that NATO, according to an official spokeswoman, is preparing to set up a permanent office in Japan: “Practical co-operation includes a wide range of areas, including cyber defence, maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, non-proliferation, science and technology, and human security.”
Japan’s rapid re-militarisation and fervent pursuit of military partnerships, in response to China’s military build-up and Xi Jinping’s bellicosity, contradicts the idea that Washington’s uneasy rivalry with Beijing can be blamed for a new cold war in North-East Asia or the Western Pacific. Graham Allison, in the 2022 article “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?”, claimed the Athenian historian Thucydides offers an insight into the cause of today’s challenges: “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” In other words China, with its transformed economy and concomitant military strength, wants respect and deference from the US, just as Athens demanded from Sparta:
As its clout grew, so too did its self-confidence, its consciousness of past injustices, its sensitivity to instances of disrespect, and its insistence that previous arrangements be revised to reflect new realities of power. It was also natural, Thucydides explained, that Sparta interpreted the Athenian posture as unreasonable, ungrateful, and threatening to the system it had established—and within which Athens had flourished.
Allison’s historical allegory is almost plausible until the importance of Japan is considered. The geo-political reality, as stated by Frank Mount in “China and the Looming Warfare over Taiwan” (Quadrant, April 2021), remains that “Taiwan is absolutely essential to the defence and security of Japan”. Lacking “geographical strategic depth”, Tokyo can never tolerate China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy threatening “both east and west of Japan”. This would be the case if China conquered or in any way commandeered Taiwan. While Japan would welcome support from the US and elsewhere in any prospective Battle for Taiwan, it might—if need be—go it alone helping the island-nation defend itself from a takeover. That is even more likely to be true as Japan’s military becomes more lethal in the years ahead. If the Battle for Taiwan were to occur today, part of Japan’s primary role would be to authorise the US to counter-attack China’s invading forces from bases in Japan. In January this year, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, ran a wargame for a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan twenty-four times. In most of the scenarios, “the United States/Taiwan/Japan defeated a conventional amphibious invasion by China and maintained an autonomous Taiwan”. Nonetheless, Taiwan’s economy would be devastated, while the United States and its allies would lose “dozens of ships, hundreds of aircraft, and tens of thousands of servicemembers”. On the other side of the ledger, China’s losses would also be heavy and “failure to occupy Taiwan might destabilise Chinese Communist Party rule”. That possible outcome must play on Xi’s mind.
Xi, then, might be dissuaded from an amphibious invasion of Taiwan, and yet still hope to commandeer Taiwan by subduing its spirited independence through hybrid warfare, such as laying siege to the island-nation. But even here we see an imperative role for Japan due to its geographical proximity to Taiwan—crucially, the remote and underpopulated landmass, including the disputed Senkaku Islands, which lies between Kyushu and northern Taiwan. If Beijing were to capture Taiwan, Japan’s southernmost territory would be hard to defend. Conversely, China’s occupation of any of Japan’s far-flung islands would make a potential blockade of Taiwan much easier. Here we have the context for Tokyo’s decision to increase the budget for its Coast Guard by 40 per cent. It can be argued—and has been argued by Fumio Kishida (and Shinzo Abe before him)—that the future of Taiwan and Japan is inseparable. The naysayers will remind us that this geopolitical circumstance is why Taiwan became Imperial Japan’s first colony in 1895. Yet this only confirms Kishida’s assertion, made in a very different time and place, about the importance of Taiwan being separate from China.
If Japan and Taiwan are now indissoluble partners, what about the third member of the unrealised NEATO? The Republic of Korea is constitutionally anti-communist. We might think, as a consequence, that South Korea and Japan, both in possession of potent armed forces, both close allies of the United States and both Asia-Pacific partners of NATO, could effortlessly put their historical differences behind them. But we would be wrong. The fact that the 2002 World Cup was held simultaneously in South Korea and Japan might have misled some into believing that these two democratic powerhouses in North-East Asia, separated by a mere three-hour ferry ride, are natural allies. However, the humiliation and brutality of Korea’s forced absorption into Imperial Japan between 1910 and 1945 still resonates. The abusive use of forced Korean labour before and during the Second World War, including the disgraceful exploitation of Korean “comfort women” by the Imperial Japanese Army, continues to rankle. Today Prime Minister Kishida is on a mission to bolster relations between Japan and South Korea, a task made easier by the election of conservative-leaning President Yoon Suk-yeol in 2022. Kishida, in a recent meeting with Yoon, expressed his regret at the harsh treatment of the Korean people during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula: “And personally, I have strong pain in my heart as I think of the extreme difficulty and sorrow that many people had to suffer under the severe environment in those days.” Yoon, for his part, has gone so far as to use Korean sources to compensate wartime labour and bring an end to their long-time disagreement.
There are some signs that Kishida and Yoon are making progress drawing their two countries together, not least thanks to the menacing conduct of Kim Jong Un. In February this year, for instance, South Korea and Japan, in conjunction with the US, took part in a rare trilateral naval exercise. This was in the aftermath of North Korea firing an ICBM into waters only 200 kilometres off Hokkaido. Beijing and Moscow have seemingly agreed that their vassal Pyongyang is welcome to intimidate Tokyo and Seoul at will. Perhaps Putin and Xi believed Kim Jong Un turning the East China Sea into a virtual firing range was to their advantage, somehow advancing their own ambitions in the Western Pacific. If so, they were mistaken.
Kishida, in May 2023, made a point of inviting President Yoon to the G7 summit in Hiroshima. Russia, we might note, was expelled from the G8 in 2014 after annexing Crimea, while China, though the world’s second-biggest economy, has never been a member of the G7. From one perspective, at least, the G7 could be characterised as the six largest economies in NATO plus Japan. At the 2023 summit—to which Australia and India were also invited—it was the last-minute attendance of Ukraine’s Zelenskyy that dramatically and emphatically underlined the resolution of not only the summit and the G7 per se but Western-style democracies as a whole: Vladimir Putin is the enemy of the post-Cold War rules-based world order and Xi Jinping, to the extent he maintains his “pro-Russia neutrality”, falls into the same category. Yoon, on the last day of the momentous 2023 G7 summit, agreed to meet with Zelenskyy to discuss providing something more than humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. The bifurcation of the world continues apace, thanks to the ambitions of Moscow and Beijing, and soon enough it might not be a case of JAUKUS so much as JAUKKUS.
Also attending the Hiroshima summit was India’s Narendra Modi, an enthusiastic member of the Quad because of concerns about Beijing’s bloody provocations on the Sino-Indian border, and yet opposed to being a fully committed American ally. Some of the reasons for this include New Delhi’s traditionally close relationship with Moscow and a desire to be the recognised paramount leader of the Global South. Modi has been careful not to alienate Putin thus far in the Ukraine war because India buys much of its military wares and (now) its oil from Russia. But geopolitical reality cannot be ignored, and Modi joined with the other Quad leaders, Kishida, Biden and Albanese, to criticise the empire-building of Xi’s China: “We emphasise the importance of adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the maintenance of freedom of navigation and overflight, in addressing challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including those in the East and South China Seas.”
Over the years, a number of commentators—such as Tarun Khanna for the Harvard Business Review back in 2007, “China + India: The Power of Two”—have made the case that India and China would gain more from working together (against Western hegemony, presumably) than opposing each other. It is not going to happen. The belligerent paranoia of the CCP, which has not only gone to war with India but also co-opted virtually every country on its perimeter, necessitates that New Delhi play a subservient role to Beijing if there is to be long-term concord between the two nations. Modi’s India has no intention of kowtowing to any foreign power, not the UK, not the US, not Russia and certainly not China. New Delhi exhibits no interest in joining AUKUS, and yet Xi’s “China Dream” can only deepen India’s commitment to its Quad partners—in other words, Japan plus two existing participants in the AUKUS pact. The time has come, as Modi himself declared before departing for Australia on his post-Hiroshima trip, to take relations to “the next level”.
It is a similar case with the Philippines, a founding member of SEATO. There are Filipinos, like Indians, who see the future of their country through an anti-American (and anti-European) lens. President of the Philippines from 2016 to 2022, Rodrigo Duterte, left-leaning in his own contradictory and roguish fashion, noisily pursued closer relations with China and Russia at the expense of America—“Time to say goodbye to Washington!” he declared on his first meeting as president with Xi Jinping. But, as Derek Grossman wrote in his 2021 article, “Duterte’s Dalliance with China is Over”, the endeavour ended in failure. Beijing is not prepared to share the South China Sea with anyone. This, after all, is why Xi rejected the 2013 ruling of The Hague against China’s claim to exclusive sovereignty of the South China Sea (known in Manila as the West Philippine Sea). The Philippines, under Duterte, had to learn the hard way, as have Tibet, Xinjiang, Bhutan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, the United States, Australia, India and the rest, that the belligerent paranoia (or totalitarianism) of the CCP makes it impossible for Beijing to collaborate genuinely with any autonomous entity:
In 2019 and early 2020, China encircled the Philippines’ Thitu Island (also known as Pagasa) with hundreds of militia boats, apparently to prevent Philippine authorities from upgrading the island’s runway and making other infrastructure improvements. Then in January this year, China authorised its coast guard to fire upon foreign vessels as needed, and in March it moored more than 200 Chinese fishing boats—many of which were likely maritime militia vessels—at the disputed Whitsun Reef.
Before Ferdinand Marcos Jr assumed the presidency in 2022, Duterte had already reversed the Philippines’ pro-China (and pro-Russia) foreign policy and announced that the long-frozen Enhanced Defence Co-operation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States would now go ahead, providing Washington with further military capacity in the Philippines. Additionally, and highly relevant to this discussion, he expressed total support for the establishment of the AUKUS pact. Since coming to power, President Marcos has overseen the implementation of the EDCA, with four sites in the northern Philippines to become expansive US military bases. In February, Marcos made a five-day visit to Japan and signed a raft of military and economic agreements with his counterpart, from streamlining inter-operability between Japan’s SDF and the Philippine Army and boosting the capability of the Philippine Coast Guard to initiating new Japanese-funded Philippine infrastructure projects. Don McLain Gill, writing for the Diplomat, is not alone in arguing that Japan and the Philippines are witnessing “a strategic convergence based on shared threat perceptions of a rising and more assertive China”.
Paul Keating, like so many Australian politicians, businessmen, cultural identities, bureaucrats, academics, educators and journalists who made their mark in an earlier era, understands that his historical legacy stands or falls on the course of Sino-Australian relations. Wilier than Keating, Kevin Rudd has begun to furtively shift ground. Belatedly, as per his November 2022 article “The World According to Xi Jinping”, Rudd is now prepared to blame—in part, at least—the hawkishness (or Marxist-Leninist dogmatism) of Chairman Xi for the return to a 1950s Cold War scenario in the Indo-Pacific. Keating is not for turning. His recent blistering Press Club attack on AUKUS, eviscerating Anthony Albanese and Labor ministers Penny Wong and Richard Marles, echoes the revisionist historians who blamed the Cold War on America. Keating, in a similar fashion, is reduced to citing CCP propaganda, in this case Xi’s bellicose Foreign Minister Qin Gang, to denounce Uncle Sam for seeking “conflict and confrontation” with Beijing. China’s crime, in the opinion of Keating, is nothing more than a desire to “keep US ships off its coast”. Beijing’s English-language Global Times would doubtless support that sentiment.
Perhaps the most specious aspect of Keating’s anti-AUKUS invective is his characterisation of Japan, Korea, India and Australia as America’s “deputy sheriffs”, a call-back to the decades-old criticism of John Howard—Keating’s political nemesis. There must come a point, surely, when the accrued number of like-minded “deputy sheriffs” in the Indo-Pacific region makes nonsense of that timeworn jibe. If Australia is able to forge close military ties with Japan, Korea and India—and to that we can add the Philippines and Taiwan, not to mention the more ambiguous cases of Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, New Guinea, New Zealand, sundry South Pacific nations, Sri Lanka and Indonesia—then Australia’s decision to be a founding member of AUKUS amounts to something more than being America’s regional proxy. In the end, it is not that America, as Keating asserts, is intent on “dominating East Asia”; rather, it is a matter of many regional countries, Japan the most powerful, not wanting to be dominated by Beijing. Long live JAUKUS.
Daryl McCann contributed “The World Needs Europe to Stand Up to China” in the June issue