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Why Japan Should Join AUKUS

Tokyo has become an indispensable security actor in the Indo-Pacific.

By , a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
A U.S. submarine and aircraft carrier join South Korean and Japanese warships during naval exercises in the Sea of Japan on Sept. 30.
A U.S. submarine and aircraft carrier join South Korean and Japanese warships during naval exercises in the Sea of Japan on Sept. 30.
A U.S. submarine and aircraft carrier join South Korean and Japanese warships during naval exercises in the Sea of Japan on Sept. 30. South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images

A new quad is coalescing in the Indo-Pacific, and it is likely to have an even greater impact than the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a grouping that brings together Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. The new alignment is coming about as Australia, Britain, Japan, and the United States increasingly align their security interests against the growth of China’s influence and power. The prospect of adding Japan to the Australia-United Kingdom-United States defense cooperation pact, established in 2021 and known as AUKUS—which would turn the group into JAUKUS—could transform security cooperation among liberal democracies in the Indo-Pacific like no other previous alliance or quasi-alliance has managed.

Such a partnership was not preordained. Indeed, reports earlier this year that Japan was quietly being asked about joining AUKUS were quickly denied by Tokyo; then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki also dismissed the idea. But Japan looks to be aligning itself with the trio nonetheless, part of a strategic revolution that has not only transformed Tokyo’s security posture but turned it into an increasingly important actor in the Indo-Pacific. Under Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated in July, Japan dropped most restrictions on joint weapons development, steadily increased its military budget, and embraced a more active defense posture, including allowing its military forces to engage in collective self-defense with partners.

Since taking power in October 2021, current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has not only built on Abe’s foreign and security policies but also expanded and enhanced Japan’s ties with leading liberal nations in Asia and beyond. Kishida immediately joined Washington and European capitals in sanctioning Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. He has deepened Japan’s engagement with NATO, becoming in June the first Japanese leader to attend a NATO summit. At home, Kishida has continued to increase Japan’s defense budget, with the possibility of doubling it to nearly $100 billion, and will soon publish a new national security strategy. The takeaway for Asia watchers is that Japan’s strategic revolution is not tied to political personalities but rather to evolving Chinese and North Korean threats. Tokyo will continue to develop its capabilities and expand its partnerships as long as Asia’s security environment remains unstable.

A new quad is coalescing in the Indo-Pacific, and it is likely to have an even greater impact than the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a grouping that brings together Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. The new alignment is coming about as Australia, Britain, Japan, and the United States increasingly align their security interests against the growth of China’s influence and power. The prospect of adding Japan to the Australia-United Kingdom-United States defense cooperation pact, established in 2021 and known as AUKUS—which would turn the group into JAUKUS—could transform security cooperation among liberal democracies in the Indo-Pacific like no other previous alliance or quasi-alliance has managed.

Such a partnership was not preordained. Indeed, reports earlier this year that Japan was quietly being asked about joining AUKUS were quickly denied by Tokyo; then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki also dismissed the idea. But Japan looks to be aligning itself with the trio nonetheless, part of a strategic revolution that has not only transformed Tokyo’s security posture but turned it into an increasingly important actor in the Indo-Pacific. Under Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated in July, Japan dropped most restrictions on joint weapons development, steadily increased its military budget, and embraced a more active defense posture, including allowing its military forces to engage in collective self-defense with partners.

Since taking power in October 2021, current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has not only built on Abe’s foreign and security policies but also expanded and enhanced Japan’s ties with leading liberal nations in Asia and beyond. Kishida immediately joined Washington and European capitals in sanctioning Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. He has deepened Japan’s engagement with NATO, becoming in June the first Japanese leader to attend a NATO summit. At home, Kishida has continued to increase Japan’s defense budget, with the possibility of doubling it to nearly $100 billion, and will soon publish a new national security strategy. The takeaway for Asia watchers is that Japan’s strategic revolution is not tied to political personalities but rather to evolving Chinese and North Korean threats. Tokyo will continue to develop its capabilities and expand its partnerships as long as Asia’s security environment remains unstable.

A core element of Kishida’s approach is a steady alignment with the three AUKUS nations. In late October, Canberra and Tokyo signed a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. Although it is not a formal mutual defense pact, the agreement enhances Japan and Australia’s “Special Strategic Partnership” while reiterating their support for global norms and regional openness. Already in January they had signed a military reciprocal access agreement, which eases the procedures for visiting forces and allows the Australian and Japanese militaries to hold joint exercises and work together on disaster relief, including with the United States.

The next step in creating an actual JAUKUS would be to consider how to slowly formalize Japan’s participation.

With their new security cooperation declaration, the two countries pledge to “deepen practical cooperation and further enhance interoperability” between their militaries while sharing intelligence, cooperating on cyberdefense, and working to secure their supply chains, among other actions. If fully implemented, the proposed scope of cooperation would make the partnership among the most important for each nation.

Meanwhile, in December, Britain and Japan will sign a reciprocal access agreement similar to the one Japan already has with Australia, easing the entry of troops into each other’s countries and enhancing joint military exercises and logistics cooperation. This follows a July announcement that Tokyo and London will cooperate (with Italy) on developing a next-generation fighter jet. The British Royal Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force held joint exercises in the English Channel the previous month, just a year after the new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier and a strike group visited Japan.

For Britain, the access agreement with Japan puts more meat on the bones of London’s “tilt” toward the Indo-Pacific region, a strategic shift first outlined by the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. A deepening of British-Japanese defense ties, along with new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s expected revision of London’s most important public strategic document, its “integrated review,” to focus more clearly on the Chinese threat, sets the stage for greater formal cooperation with Canberra, Tokyo, and Washington in the Indo-Pacific.

Even before the four countries reach any formal agreement, however, an informal JAUKUS is already emerging thanks to an alignment of actions aimed at balancing Chinese advances. Already, in October 2021, the four countries’ navies conducted joint training in the Indian Ocean. In August, Japan announced it would research hypersonic missiles, shortly after AUKUS stated it would focus on developing both hypersonic and counter-hypersonic technology. Similarly, Japan is increasing its investment in quantum computing, to be carried out in part by Fujitsu, owner of the world’s second-fastest supercomputer. This initiative meshes with AUKUS’s commitment to jointly develop quantum and artificial intelligence technologies with potential military implications.

Similarly, the four nations are increasingly aligned on domestic security issues. All four have banned Huawei from their domestic telecommunications networks, especially 6G, although implementation has been uneven. Furthermore, British Security Minister Tom Tugendhat’s recent announcement that Britain will close all remaining Confucius Institutes means that each of the four nations is moving to reduce the presence and influence of the Beijing-funded organization, which has exerted pressure on universities around the world to mute criticism of China and push positive narratives that benefit the interests of the Chinese state.

The next step in creating an actual JAUKUS would be to consider how to slowly formalize Japan’s participation. It could begin by inviting Japanese officials to observe some of the 17 AUKUS working groups on areas of common interest, such as quantum computing and hypersonic development. A next stage would be to explore modified JAUKUS status for Japan or regular attendance at meetings of joint steering groups, which set policy on the two core topics that AUKUS is focused on—submarines and advanced capabilities—while longer-term membership is discussed. Throughout, quietly exploring how Tokyo might participate in AUKUS’s core effort to supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia could help map out potential diplomatic and political landmines, not least in Japanese domestic politics, where the opposition to nuclear technology for any military use remains strong.

Regardless of the process by which it happens and its ultimate status—whether it is an alliance, a pact, or something more informal—JAUKUS is a natural evolution of converging security concerns and initiatives by four leading liberal nations with a will and ability to think strategically about the Indo-Pacific. As the commonality of their policies and goals becomes ever more apparent, the JAUKUS nations will likely see the benefit of further coordinating and joining their efforts, all of which promises to help maintain stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

Michael Auslin is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author of Asia’s New Geopolitics: Essays on Reshaping the Indo-Pacific.

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