P.S. Suryanarayana

Japan and Australia have been careful to factor in China's sensitivities while signing a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation.

SECURITY PACTS have almost gone out of vogue since the end of the Cold War. Multilateral "coalitions of the willing" have, of course, been formed in this period of intense globalisation. However, purely bilateral security deals, not to be mistaken for the lesser but bountiful "strategic partnerships," are uncommon.

In this political climate, the latest Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation is of unusual importance to the Asia-Pacific theatre. Signing the statement in Tokyo on March 13, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Australian counterpart John Howard sought to dispel the suspicions that they were launching a military alliance in all but name.

No Chinese reaction

Their assertions gained credibility, even as China, the supposed target of their defence diplomacy, stayed cool and refrained from any stinging criticism of the deal.

The hard-sell by Australia and Japan, in some ways, remains focussed on China, the emerging Asia-Pacific power. Doubly emphasised is the "soft" nature of the pact, which does not invoke images of a joint deployment of military forces by Australia and the officially pacifist Japan. No country or group of states or even non-state actors are identified as the potential threats to the security of either Japan or Australia.

The statement is noteworthy for the commitment to "increase practical cooperation between the defence forces and other security-related agencies of Australia and Japan." The identified practical steps include the exchange of personnel, joint exercises as also training, and coordinated activities relating to law enforcement and peace-keeping missions.

The objectives, for which these steps are outlined, range from counter-terrorism and border security, at one end of the spectrum, to counter-proliferation of the weapons of mass destruction and the related delivery systems, at the other end.

Overarching these objectives and modalities is the new mechanism of Japan-Australia political dialogue, on a regular basis, involving the Defence and Foreign Ministers from each side.

All these may appear somewhat innocuous to those being tracked by the Australia-Japan radar, because there is an important difference between this document and the recent Tokyo-Washington military alliance updates.

While the United States and Japan had specifically identified the Taiwan issue as a security concern to them, Tokyo and Canberra have assiduously avoided any reference of this kind. Beijing, which sees Taiwan as an inalienable part of China, had already denounced the U.S.-Japan view. With Australia and Japan steering clear of China's sensitivities, it has not condemned their latest security deal.

Most recently, when U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney visited Australia, Mr. Howard conspicuously distanced himself from the hawkish American's anti-China utterances regarding its military posture and defence expenditure. In the same vein, Mr. Howard has now packaged the Australia-Japan deal in terms of his friendly sentiments towards China.

Noting that he would not believe that Beijing was much worried about this new security framework, Mr. Howard said "there are, from time to time, some differences" between Australia and the U.S. over China. "They are not just nuanced differences, there is a different perspective," he emphasised.

It has been obvious, for sometime, that Australia wants to act autonomously of the U.S. with regard to China in the Asia-Pacific theatre. Australia's recent agreement to sell uranium to China is a case in point. Mr. Howard has said he would remain steadfast as a U.S. ally without alienating China.

For Mr. Abe, the China-options are not as well defined. The reason has to do with Japan's history around the time of the Second World War. Also relevant is resurgent Japan's present competition with China for big power status.

Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Tomohiko Taniguchi has told this correspondent that "at the moment, there is no likelihood" of Tokyo and Canberra being joined by Washington for a trilateral military alliance. Nor is the current Tokyo-Canberra pact said to be "an equivalent" of the Japan-U.S. alliance.

According to other authoritative Japanese sources, Tokyo is now exploring the possibility of expanding the existing Japan-U.S.-Australia "trilateral strategic dialogue" to include India.

While the exploratory proposition is based on the idea of creating a concert of major democracies in the Asia-Pacific theatre, the new Tokyo-Canberra pact is, in part, designed to assess China's longer-term options. Experts on "global politics" like Daniel Drezner emphasise that "China has already begun to create new institutional structures outside of the U.S. reach." The reference is to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, in particular, and the western gameplan is to see how far rising powers like China and India might be able to challenge the U.S.