Last week’s announcement that Japan would join the AUKUS partnership was typical of an arrangement that has become notorious for being long on rhetoric and short on detail.

Formally announced by the three partner countries on Tuesday (April 9), word of Japan’s involvement seeped into the press via background briefings in the days beforehand.

According to the headlines Japan would dock into the so-called “Pillar 2” element of AUKUS - the advanced capabilities stream.

Pillar 1, as we all know, concerns the design, manufacture, and acquisition of nuclear submarines.

Pillar 2 involves sharing and collaboration around some of the most sensitive military technologies in the US shop - hypersonics, quantum computing, AI, and autonomous technologies.

These capabilities will determine the shape of future conflicts.

It was exciting stuff. Japan has long been mooted as an obvious partner for the AUKUS countries of the U.S., Australia, and the U.K.

Japan is a world leader in robotics, quantum, and AI. It is proximate to China, both physically and politically. People forget, but the economic coercion made famous by Beijing against Australia in 2020 was road-tested against Japan back when Shinzo Abe was prime minister.

Japan is also within missile flight of North Korea, and while the Hermit Kingdom is not the raison d’etre for the AUKUS agreement, it is just as likely that AUKUS-related capabilities will be deployed against Pyongyang as they will be against Beijing, such is the violent and unpredictable nature of the North Korean regime.

So including Japan, which knows the neighbourhood, makes sense.

But a few days after the announcement Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese moved to hose down expectations Japan would “join” AUKUS.

Rather, he said, the AUKUS partners would explore potential cooperation with Japan on a limited number of AUKUS projects. What that means in practice is anyone’s guess. It is quite likely that the principals themselves don’t yet have a clear understanding of what cooperation with Tokyo might entail.

While a pathway to Pillar 1 has been well established, the shape of Pillar 2 is much fuzzier. Earlier this year the three parties put some meat on the bone when they announced new workstreams for Pillar 2. I wrote about that previously on the blog – AUKUS: Pillar 2 comes out from the shadows.

But the whole thing’s still vague as heck, at least to those of us on the outside.

Still, there was no shortage of commentary on a possible Japanese involvement in AUKUS.

Much of that commentary focused on Japan’s notoriously sloppy security procedures. Unlike the other AUKUS partners, Japan has yet to develop a rigorous security classification system for handling state secrets. Its cyber security practices are also quite primitive. In the first half of 2022, an average of 7800 unauthorized attacks were detected daily - nearly double the figure detected in 2019.

This often comes as a surprise to outsiders, who assume that Japan’s much-vaunted sophistication in the fields of manufacturing and innovation must cross over into cyber security. It does not. AUKUS partners will be highly reluctant to entrust sensitive capabilities to Japan without a major uplift in those areas.

But for us, these concerns are seriously overplayed.

Yes, Japan has work to do in improving its internal security procedures. But this is low-hanging fruit. It’s possible to work with a country to ensure it handles quantum technology properly. It’s not possible to make that country an instant expert in that same technology. In other words, what Japan has to offer the AUKUS partnerships, dwarfs, ultimately, whatever risks are associated with working with it.

The point has also been made that including Japan in AUKUS transforms the arrangement from an Anglosphere club to a regional security pact embedded in the heart of Asia.

We’d agree. In fact, We’d go further. Including Japan helps compensate for what may prove to be a long-term weakness in the AUKUS pact: Great Britain.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m a fan of the UK’s involvement in AUKUS. An AUKUS-designed submarine program that can leverage the industrial bases of the US, the UK, and Australia can and will add much-needed scale to what is a vital maritime capability.

But the fact is the UK is the one country in the AUKUS agreement with no natural equities in the Asia Pacific. Britain’s commitment to the region, such as it is, is a holdover from its Empire days, when Britain held possessions in Singapore, Burma, Hong Kong, and Malaya.

Its commitment to the Asia Pacific also falters according to who’s in Downing Street. It reached its summit when Boris Johnson was Prime Minister but has waned ever since. If there is a change of government later this year, as seems all but certain, it seems likely Britain’s interest in the region will diminish even further.

Bolstering the involvement of a country in the heart of the region and which has an obvious interest in its long-term security, therefore, makes sense.

Incorporating Japan into AUKUS also leverages the other great advantage the US has over China and other rivals: alliances. For all the talk of Sino-Russian cooperation or the so-called “Axis of Autocracy”, none of America’s adversaries can match Washington’s global network of alliances and military cooperation.

Yes, China might be buying Russian gas in defiance of global sanctions or giving Moscow top cover at the UN Security Council. Yes, there might be an emerging axis of cooperation between Russia and Iran, or Iran and North Korea. But this is nothing compared to the long-standing security ties that bind the AUKUS partners and Japan.

Ask yourself this: would you rather be a member of the so-called “arc of autocracy” or would you rather be a member of NATO? Would you prefer membership in a Sino-Russian friendship pact or in ANZUS? Would you feel safer knowing that Iran will sell you weaponized drones or would you prefer to have 18,000 Marines permanently stationed in Okinawa?

You get the picture.

Bringing Japan into AUKUS embeds Tokyo into Asia’s most important security architecture, not as a client, but as a partner.

That’s got to be good news.

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