The sight of Australian troops defending Japanese forces during Iraq's post-war reconstruction raised hackles in certain quarters in both countries. Sent there for reconstruction, the engineers from Japan's Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) were constitutionally prohibited from opening fire on Iraqi insurgents unless fired on first.

Assistant Minister for Defence Stuart Robert MP and JSDF Rear Admiral Hideki Yuasa onboard JS Kashima, Fleet Base East, Sydney.

A decade later, Japan may finally be able to return Australia's favour, should Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's plans on collective-self defence become reality (along with a proposed submarine deal). According to analysts, it's all part of a blossoming 'special relationship' in which Australia has become Japan's second-most important security partner in the Asia Pacific.

On 12 February, Japan's top business daily, Nikkei, quoted a senior Japanese Defence Ministry official as saying that Tokyo was considering allowing the JSDF to help defend Australian troops in the event of an attack 'during joint exercises or surveillance,' as part of a broader push by the Abe Government against the nation's pacifist constitution and its military restrictions.

The new provision would match arrangements with US forces agreed by Japan's cabinet last July, and could potentially extend to the JSDF providing non-combat rear area logistical and intelligence support to Australian forces in regional contingencies, such as on the Korean Peninsula.

Justifying the planned change, the Japanese official told Nikkei, 'If the SDF is authorised to protect only American forces, they would not be able to come to the aid of Australian forces even if they are attacked during joint exercises.' The newspaper said the Japanese Government and Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would 'discuss adding Australian forces to this arrangement given that Tokyo is deepening its security ties with Canberra.' 

In more fuel for talk about an emerging 'quasi-alliance' between Japan and Australia, the newspaper also noted both nations' defence-sharing framework and plans to conduct joint in-flight refueling and other exercises in Guam this month, along with US forces.

However, a stumbling block for Abe exists in the form of Buddhist-backed Komeito, the junior partner in the LDP-led ruling coalition, which is opposed to any further legislative changes beyond those agreed last year. Abe relies upon Komeito for a majority in the upper house, but has already attracted criticism from the junior partner over reported plans to backtrack on an official war apology, known as the Murayama Statement.

The two parties have started negotiations on the proposed reinterpretation of the constitution to allow Japan to defend its allies, with the Government and LDP aiming to finalise related bills by the end of March, for submission to parliament in May. But Komeito Deputy Secretary-General Tetsuo Saito has told Bloomberg that the process could be delayed. 'If proposals are put forward that we have not debated, I don't know if we will reach a conclusion by the end of March,' he said.

Narushige Michishita, professor at Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said the proposed rule change concerning Australia was 'only reasonable' given current support for US forces.

'This is not about the JSDF and Australian forces fighting together, but a more important wartime cooperation (than just peacekeeping operations) that we might be able to undertake in the future,' he said. 'My gut feeling is that it will be realised because it is what we have already promised to do to the United States. It would be extremely awkward for us not to provide the same support to Australia while doing so to the United States.'

Michishita said the prospect of Japanese and Australian troops joining combat missions, such as against Islamic State in Syria, was 'not an option' given opposition both in parliament and among the Japanese public. Opinion polls show there is no majority support for Abe's proposed changes, so the Prime Minister is treading warily despite having recently won re-election.

No secret deal

Michishita also denied claims of a 'secret' submarine deal between Abe and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who during last year's meeting in Australia talked about a 'special relationship' between the two US allies. However, he said Tokyo faced obstacles in placating Australian political pressure for local manufacturing of the Soryu subs, which former Australian Defence Minister David Johnston described as 'the best conventional submarine in the world.'

'Realistically, there's a limit as to how much we can do for Australia to acquire the submarines at a reasonable cost, and in a reasonably built manner. Certainly Japan could subcontract some manufacturing to Australian shipbuilders, but doing it too much would increase the cost and potentially undermine their capability,' Michishita said.

'Australia has to find a balance between the objectives of local employment and acquiring cutting-edge submarines in good condition and at relatively low cost. Ultimately, it's going to be a political decision for Mr Abbott.'

Regardless of the outcome, Michishita said Australia had become Japan's second-most important defence ally in the region behind the US, although a cautious approach to strengthening ties was critical. 'We should take a step-by-step approach to enhancing security ties – we don't want to antagonise China as we'd like to improve peace and stability in the region and not disrupt it,' he said.

Professor Rory Medcalf, head of ANU's National Security College, says any submarine deal with Japan would not 'lock Australia into a military alliance with Japan – that's a false concern that's been raised in some quarters.'

Japanese troops protecting Australian Diggers? Joint submarine exercises in the Pacific? Scenarios that long would have seemed a fantasy have suddenly become very real, providing Abe and Abbott can negotiate their own domestic political minefields first.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.