Will talks of expanding AUKUS halt the improvement in Australian-China relations?

Japan could be joining the AUKUS alliance, but what would it mean for Australian-Chinese relations?

Japan could be joining the AUKUS alliance, but what would it mean for Australian-Chinese relations? Photo: Getty

Improving China and Australia relations are likely to survive talks of Japan joining the AUKUS alliance, despite regular “sabre-rattling” from Beijing, according to experts.

In a joint statement, defence chiefs from the US, Britain and Australia said the alliance is considering working with Japan on technology and advanced capability capabilities.

James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, said that he didn’t expect any harsh reactions from China, like the re-introduction of trade tariffs, cutting off of political dialogue or a “return to wolf warrior diplomacy”.

“Beijing would understand that if it lashes out at what remains only a possibility, and a possibility with vague consequences in any case, this will only promote the formation of harder-edged cooperation, AUKUS or otherwise, that takes aim at China,” Laurenceson said.

“Beijing will engage in sabre-rattling whenever it sees its ‘core interests’ threatened, such as around Taiwan or the South China Sea, but that’s separate to Japan’s potential membership of the AUKUS pact.”

China has accused the West of potentially disregarding the risk of nuclear proliferation and intensifying the arms race in the region if Japan joins the alliance, according to the South China Post.

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch, from ANU’s National Security College, said Beijing approached repairing its relationship with Australia knowing that AUKUS would be in place.

“Beijing will object to AUKUS and there will be negative things said about Australia by the Chinese government, but in the end, it is unlikely to interrupt the move towards a warmer relationship,” he said.

“Beijing will continue with its plan to remove the remaining restrictions on Australian lobster and beef, and we have much more high-level diplomacy between Canberra and Beijing.”

Japan would not be included in the production and delivery of nuclear submarines. Photo: AAP

Pillar II

Japan wouldn’t be included in the $368 billion nuclear-powered submarine program – known as pillar one – but would instead be part of the sharing of technology and joint development of military capabilities.

Laurenceson said he was sceptical of the value to be gained by Japan joining AUKUS pillar II.

“The risk for Australia is that talking up Japan’s potential participation and future membership becomes chiefly about symbolism and attitude,” he said.

“This hardens threat assessments in Beijing without actually delivering any real increase in capability.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also signalled that he would be interested in his country joining AUKUS, alongside considering if Canada should buy nuclear-powered submarines.

Despite this, Herscovitch said it was likely that the most consequential part of AUKUS would remain “exclusively a United States, United Kingdom and Australian endeavour”.

“Other countries won’t be operating in nuclear-powered submarines, but they might be involved in other aspects,” he said.

The French would be eying off the Canadians as a possible market for their nuclear-powered submarine program.”

Trade and diplomacy

Both Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s cabinet and shadow foreign affairs minister Simon Birmingham have signalled support for expanding the alliance to include Japan, which is already a part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia, India and the US.

Australia’s nuclear submarine delivery has been plagued by delays and concerns over logistics and timelines.

Herscovitch said if Donald Trump returned to the US presidency in this year’s election, he could cancel the alliance altogether.

“Staring down the barrel of a US presidential election later this year, AUKUS may encounter turbulence regardless of what happens with Japan,” he said.

“Japan and Canada might be involved, but it’s also entirely possible that the caucus will cease to be a reality entirely in coming years.”

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