Australia and Japan as America’s Deputies – in Multilateralism?

Dr Malcolm Cook and Mr Andrew Shearer at the Lowy Institute in Sydney published last month a short analysis entitled Going Global: A New Australia-Japan Agenda for Multilateral Cooperation:
‘To help both governments navigate [a] more complicated and uncertain international environment, the paper offers a agenda for enhanced Australia-Japan multilateral cooperation organised around:
– support for American global leadership, and
– reforming post-war multilateralism.
Three areas of international policy are particularly well suited to closer Australia-Japan cooperation in pursuit of these goals: climate change and energy security; nuclear non-proliferation; and official development assistance.’
I have some doubts about these two foundational principles, especially over the mid- to long-term, given America’s own longstanding ambivalence about multilateralism, and its relative decline particularly since the GFC. In the short term, however, it seems worthwhile to think more deeply and creatively about three of their seven specific recommendations:
‘- Leverage APEC and the East Asia Summit more to act as caucuses in multilateral bodies like the WTO …
– Better coordinate Australian and Japanese aid policies and programs …
– More ambitiously, develop and pursue an Australia-Japan agenda for reform of the multilateral system.’ (p2)

Mostly implicit in the analysis is the rise of China, although that the paper does mention that specifically (at p5) – along with the rise of India – as ‘changing power balances in the region’. Ian Castle has disagreed recently with the editor of The Australian on ‘Measuring China’s Size and Power’, even in economic terms. How quickly China grows relative to the US will partly define the ‘short term’ for both Australia and Japan.
Already, Tobias Harris reports that PM Aso alluded recently in Beijing to the possibility of a Japan-China FTA. If this eventuates before any Japan-US FTA, what does this bode for the ‘support for American global leadership’ advocated by Cook and Shearer?
Nor should we forget India, as Bill Emmott argued in Rivals last year. Even in the short term, Raghbendra Jha remains ‘guardedly optimistic’ about its growth prospects – and everything, especially nowadays, is relative. Already, Japan has commenced bilateral FTA negotiations with India.
The point is that the world is becoming increasingly multi-polar, especially as the GFC and recession hit the US particularly hard. Hitching our wagon to America may well leave us behind. It might be better for Japan and especially Australia to support other economic powerhouses in leadership bids, on a more ad hoc basis. Similarly, regarding at least some security matters (like invasions of Iraq), but I leave that to the experts.
Another point is that America itself has hardly been exemplary in promoting ‘post-war multilateralism’, whether in security or economic affairs. (Think of its pre-WTO approach to market access in Japan and elsewhere, its slow implementation of adverse WTO rulings, and America’s active involvement in bilateral and regional FTAs – beginning with NAFTA.) That’s understandable for a great power, and the US may be – or turn out to be – better than others like the EU or large countries in Asia. But we don’t yet know for sure, and meanwhile it leaves a tension between the two guiding principles proposed by Cook and Shearer.
In the (truly) short term, however, their approach could be useful in some fields. For example, Australia and Japan could include balanced investor-state arbitration provisions in the FTA they are currently negotiating. These could serve as a template for those in the Trans-Tasman Partnership Agreement, which both Australia and the US wish to join. A permanent Appellate Body and improvements in state-to-state dispute settlement could be added to such Agreements, which in turn might promote useful reforms to the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Understanding at the multilateral level. But even in this process, notice how the US could not call all the shots, even with the support of Australia and Japan. Other countries are already involved, and pragmatic accommodations reached. All the more so, if trying to include further APEC or East Asian Summit members.
A second area where the latter two countries could collaborate is ‘legal technical assistance’, within their ODA programs. For example, AusAID programs increasingly emphasise long-term sustainability, as with Sydney Law School’s program to promote human rights awareness among police and prosecutors in Nepal. As well as ‘training the trainers’, as in that program, it would be useful to be able to commit to follow-ups with other grants through agencies like JICA in Japan. More simply, the two ODA agencies could cooperate in a one longer-term project. This, in turn, might be better coordinated with regional or multilateral initiatives.
But notice again that the vision of the perfect ‘rule of law’ in the US is not necessarily identical to that which has evolved over the centuries in Australia, from the original English variant of the common law tradition. Let alone the vision found in the countries like Japan, with a legal system that has borrowed heavily from continental European law traditions. So, once again, bilateral cooperation may come up against a trade-off between American leadership and a new multilateralism.

Author: Luke Nottage

Prof Luke Nottage (BCA, LLB, PhD VUW, LLM LLD Kyoto) is founding co-director of the Australian Network for Japanese Law (ANJeL), Associate Director (Japan) of the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney (CAPLUS), and Professor of Comparative and Transnational Business Law at Sydney Law School. He specialises in international dispute resolution, foreign investment law, contract and consumer (product safety) law.

One thought on “Australia and Japan as America’s Deputies – in Multilateralism?”

  1. P.S. Professor David Goodman, a political scientist / historian at USydney specialising in China (, gave an interesting public lecture yesterday in the Main Quadrangle building. He argued that three key points tend to be overlooked when assessing China:
    1. Its economic rise needs to be kept in perspective. For example, China was the world’s largest economy until around 1830. From the 1950s until the 1970s it grew anyway at 6% p.a. China’s share of world GDP is still very low compared to its vast population.
    2. China as one state really emerged only from the 20th century, and is also still a work-in-progress. It is better conceptualised like a continental civilisation.
    3. China retains enormous ethnic variety, despite modern efforts to limit this and ‘unity’ the state, around the Han.
    So what implications can we draw regarding the Lowy Institute paper? On the one hand, the “short term” may indeed prove longer than expected. So Cook and Shearer might contend that Australia and Japan should keep hitching their wagon to the US.
    On the other hand, they argue that this aims at the renewed pursuit of multilateralism. So an important question remains open. Is the US most likely to share that commitment over the foreseeable future, or are countries like China? Goodman pointed out that even as the world’s largest economy, say in the 12th century in dealings with Vietnam, China didn’t call all the shots.

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