ABC The Drum

The new defence agreements between Japan and the US seem like a win-win for them, but they could add fuel to the regional fire and Australia will need to carefully balance its alliances, writes

The news of the United States and Japan ramping up defence agreements comes as a strong message to those who doubted the Obama administration's commitment to the Asia-Pacific rebalance.

The security alliance is certainly the strongest link between these two countries, given that the attempts to iron out outstanding trade issues are yet to yield results and lead to signing of the major regional free trade deal, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The announced defence revisions are designed mostly to empower Japan, as they loosen restrictions on what it can do militarily. This has in turn raised concern that in a region that is already fraught with escalating instability such moves could be seen as adding fuel to the fire.

On the surface, the deal is presented as a win-win for both sides.

From Washington's perspective, the revision of the 1997 security pacts fits with the grand strategy of rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific. Building and maintaining strong military alliances around the region is just one aspect of the rebalance, and it makes sense that the US wants to have allies who are prepared to act when asked.

The Obama administration is also seeing the strengthening of security ties as a potential catalyst for finalising a major economic component of the rebalance — the TPP — as the US and Japan are the biggest participants in the talks.

Conveniently, the Senate Finance committee has just last week given the White House the green light on the proposed fast track legislation. This would, pending a full Senate vote, make it much easier to pass the TPP through the Congress, as it would prohibit amending the trade deal.

Arguably, the revised security deal is an even bigger win for the junior partner in the relationship. The Japanese prime minister has been given a boost in his campaign to revise the country's constitutional commitment to pacifism — a principle the US imposed after the Second World War.

Shinzo Abe has been anything but shy about his security policy agenda, which he puzzlingly refers to as "proactive pacifism". This has included the recent reinterpretation of the constitution to provide for collective self-defence, and policy initiatives such as the "Asia's democratic security diamond", which would see Australia, India, and the US working closely with Japan "to safeguard the maritime commons".

However, while president Barack Obama enjoys more or less bipartisan support on expanding the country's role in the Asia–Pacific, prime minister Abe's regional ambitions find feeble backing from the Japanese public. A recent Pew poll shows that only 23 per cent of Japanese respondents welcome a more active Japanese military role in regional affairs. Thus, in light of public sentiment one must be careful not to overstate the impact of security revisions.

Furthermore, is also interesting to observe how the officials from both countries have tried to present the defence alliance revisions as a move that is not only aimed at resolving the issues that mire the Asia–Pacific, or as a response to the growing military capabilities of the proverbial elephant in the room, China. Rather, emphasis was given to issues such as cyber-security, information sharing, logistical and surveillance assets in foreign missions, and greater security coordination between the two countries overall.

While neither side is willing to openly admit it, the reality is that their security wins can be interpreted as relative losses for China. President Obama was careful not to antagonise China in a recent interview; however, his statement, "we don't want China to use its size to muscle other countries in the region around rules that disadvantage us," sends a powerful message to Beijing.

Moreover, the US has once again reaffirmed its commitment to defending the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, which is one of the major issues in the Sino-Japanese relations.

Finally, while there has been little official commentary from Australian politicians regarding these recent moves, Australia's position regarding the two countries in question is unequivocal. The alliance with the US enjoys broad bipartisan support and is only intensifying. The Abbott Government's moves towards closer ties with Japan have made many wonder if this is a worthy trade-off given the potential damage it can inflict on Australia's relationship with China.

The implications are clear — as its allies pull away from China, Australia will have to work hard to find the perfect balance between respecting its alliance commitments, and avoiding alienating its biggest trade partner.

This article was originally published at ABC The Drum