Politics of Iraqi security draw Australia, Japan closer

Last week, Australia announced it would send 450 more soldiers to Iraq to protect Japan's forces.

The decision to deploy - or withdraw - troops in Iraq has posed difficult political considerations for leaders around the world.

But for Australia and Japan, the contributions they've made to Iraq's postwar security effort have brought fresh opportunities to strengthen their relationship - and reshape Asian relations in the process.

The most recent case in point: Australia announced Feb. 22 that it would send 450 more troops to Iraq to replace departing Dutch troops who protected the Japanese Self-Defense Forces engaged in reconstruction work in southern Iraq.

Tuesday, Japanese government sources said Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer plans to visit Japan in mid-March to discuss bilateral cooperation in reconstructing Iraq.

This could pose political risk for Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who had pledged not to send peacekeepers. But he is counting on stronger ties with Japan to outweigh those risks.

"I think in this Asia-Pacific region, the Iraq issue is viewed less through the prism of a war on terror, than how it relates to strategic affairs in the region," says Hugh White, professor of strategic affairs at the Australian National University, in Canberra.

According to Professor White, South Korea has sent 3,600 troops to Iraq - more than Australia and Japan combined - not out of any loyalty to the US, but because it is looking for support on the Korean peninsula.

Strategic alliance

Explaining his reasons to a surprised Australian press, Mr. Howard said that Iraq was at a "tilting point" and that it was the "right decision. "It's difficult. I know it's not popular with some people, but it's the right decision and, in the fullness of time, that will be demonstrated."

He also emphasized that Japan's continued presence in Iraq was vital. "Working alongside and in partnership with a close regional ally and partner such as Japan is very important from Australia's point of view," Howard said.

Experts note that although Canberra has been developing its military relationship with Tokyo since the end of the cold war, previous contacts have been among officials; going to Iraq would enable some service-to-service contact.

Under pressure

With only 160 troops on the ground in Iraq, engaged in noncombat roles, Howard has been under increasing pressure from the United States and Britain to provide more ground support.

Experts say that the paucity of Australia's postwar military contribution, embarrasses its military when dealing with its British and American counterparts. And last year, Mr. Downer rejected UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's request for troops to protect the UN mission inside Iraq.

This January, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told Japan that Britain would cooperate fully to ensure the safety of the approximately 550 Japanese troops - whose use of arms is strictly limited by their country's Constitution - in the mostly peaceful Shiite-dominated Al Muthanna province. But Mr. Straw did not specify who would be assigned that task.

So when Howard took a phone call from his Japanese counterpart, Junichiro Koizumi, on Feb. 18 asking for his assistance, the Australian leader saw it as an opportunity to ingrat- iate himself once more to his traditional alliance partners in the West, and further, to develop Australia's strategic relationship with Japan.

Japanese aims

For its part, Japan is looking to strengthen its relationship with the US when it comes to needing support in its political dealings with China.

"Although Japan has an excellent economic relationship with China, it has a chilly strategic and political relationship with Beijing," says Mr. White.

Ongoing tension between China and Japan over gas fields that may straddle their maritime boundaries has been fueled by news that China has granted one of its companies the right to carry out exploration in Japan's exclusive economic zone in the East China Sea.

Mr. Koizumi's contentious annual visits to the war-tainted Yasukuni Shrine - the spiritual symbol of Japan's wartime reign - have also added to the tension.

But Japan has another agenda as well: It needs to make a bigger global security contribution to gain support for its bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Tokyo is still smarting from the first Gulf War, when it was excluded from the list of countries thanked by Kuwait for helping the war effort because it sent billions of dollars instead of troops - a move that was dismissed as "checkbook diplomacy."

"It was a humiliating failure of statecraft, and Prime Minister Koizumi has now gone to exceptional lengths to be able to get domestic support to send troops to Iraq, and this is viewed positively by Australia," says White.

Others say that Japan is only a "military liability" in Iraq. "It's farcical that Japan is sending troops which themselves need protection," says Aurelia George Mulgan, a Japan expert at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney.

So far, Australians have not reacted strongly to Howard's moves. "Frankly, the mood of the general public is that unless there are a lot of casualties, even if Iraq descends into civil war, unless a whole lot of Australians get killed, we won't care," says Aldo Borgu, program director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.

Only one Australian soldier has been killed in Iraq since the start of the war.

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