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Aukus expansion: Japan, South Korea want in on Pillar 2 – but trust is still a sticking point

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South Korean Defence Minister Shin Won-sik speaks during a meeting with Australian officials in Melbourne on May 1. Photo: AP
South Korea was next to rock the boat, with its Defence Minister Shin Won-sik saying on May 1 that the possibility of sharing advanced military technology with Aukus members had been discussed during two days of meetings in Melbourne with Australian officials.

His country’s “differentiated science and technology capabilities will contribute to peace and stability”, Shin said.

New Zealand reportedly entered into talks with Australia on joining Pillar 2 of the pact back in January, but after a warning from China it seemed to demur somewhat, with Foreign Minister Winston Peters stressing earlier this month that Wellington was still “a long way” from being able to make a decision on joining the pact, adding: “Our information gathering is still in its early stages”.
A semiconductor factory under construction in Japan’s Hokkaido province earlier this month. Japan has worked to reduce its reliance on China, building new domestic production bases for semiconductors. Photo: Kyodo

Stumbling blocks

Japan and South Korea could undoubtedly offer state-of-the-art technical know-how and technologies to Aukus, according to Eleanor Shiori Hughes, a non-resident fellow at Chicago-based economic research think tank EconVue.

“With their outlook on the strategic environment largely aligned with that of the Aukus countries, they have enormous potential to be major value-adds to build capacity on these cutting-edge capabilities,” said Hughes, who is also a member of the Australian Institute for International Affairs and The Japan Foundation’s Indo-Pacific Cooperation Network.

But she said major obstacles still prevented either East Asian nation or New Zealand from joining Aukus due to the “nascent” nature of the partnership.

“Members are still working towards solidifying the building blocks by which to expand collaboration on frontier technologies for both pillars,” Hughes said, adding that Tokyo would need to build greater resilience against cyberattacks before it can participate in Aukus projects.

[Aukus] members are still working towards solidifying the building blocks by which to expand collaboration on frontier technologies

Eleanor Shiori Hughes, researcher

“While there is reason for promise, Japan still needs to reconcile challenges posed by its security clearance mechanisms.”

Of the three Aukus aspirants, New Zealand would likely find it the easiest to slot into the pact’s security framework due to it already being a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance alongside Australia, Britain, the US and Canada, said Satoru Nagao, a non-resident fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington whose primary research area is security cooperation.

For its part, Japan has been making moves to improve information security and prevent leaks of sensitive data with a “security clearance bill” that was approved by the cabinet in February and is currently being debated in parliament.

If passed into law, the bill would expand the use of background checks for people working with sensitive information, carrying a punishment of up to five years in prison and a hefty fine for anyone leaking information “critical to national economic security”.

South Korean KF-16 fighters jets fly in formation over the Korean peninsula. An information leak related to the fighter jet project set alarm bells ringing in Aukus member states. Photo: Yonhap/via dpa

This adds to the “strong punishments” Japan already has in place if members of the defence industry leak information, Nagao said – improving the likelihood that Aukus members will want to share military secrets with Tokyo.

Despite South Korea having “a tough legal system that protects sensitive information”, Nagao said Aukus members were concerned about leaks in the country, citing a case that came to light earlier this year involving two Indonesian nationals who were accused of attempting to steal military secrets related to the KF-21 fighter jet project.

“Domestic politics in South Korea are also highly volatile,” said Stephen Nagy, an international-relations professor at International Christian University in Tokyo. “A change in president could lead to a change in position on Pillar 2 participation.”

Current South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s term doesn’t end for another three years, but his ability to govern with a free hand was further constrained when his ruling People Power Party’s suffered a stinging defeat in last month’s legislative elections.
Protesters stage a rally in 2017 to oppose plans to deploy the advanced US Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence, or THAAD, system in South Korea. Photo: AP

South Korea is also highly vulnerable to economic and other forms of coercion from China, Nagy said.

In 2017, China reacted to Seoul discussing the deployment of the US’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defence anti-missile system by banning package tours to South Korea, encouraging a boycott of Korean brands and shutting down stores owned by South Korean conglomerate Lotte. The fallout cost South Korea’s economy some US$7.5 billion that year alone, according to estimates from the Hyundai Research Institute.

Japan, by comparison, enjoys many of the same technological advantages as South Korea but is less vulnerable to coercion or susceptible to a drastic shift in its strategic outlook, according to Nagy.

Japan will likely be the first country to cooperate in Pillar 2

Stephen Nagy, international-relations professor

“Japan will likely be the first country to cooperate in Pillar 2,” Nagy said, adding that Beijing would continue to paint Aukus as a Washington-led alliance aimed at containing China.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said last month that “China and many regional countries have expressed grave concerns and opposition” to Aukus, which she said “heightens the risk of nuclear proliferation, exacerbates [the] arms race in the Asia-Pacific and undermines regional peace and stability.”

Chinese nationalist tabloid Global Times also chimed in, stating in an April 8 article that any expansion of Aukus would be an “alarming move” that “marks the pact further turning into an ‘Asian Nato’”. It warned such a move could also “further foment militarism within Japan”, citing a researcher of Australian studies.

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“Aukus members will have to work hard in Southeast Asia and other Aukus-sceptic regions to counter this [Chinese] narrative to secure direct or indirect support,” Nagy said.

When researchers at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore asked 1,677 respondents from 10 Southeast Asian nations what they thought about Aukus in 2022, more than one-third, or 36.4 per cent, said they thought it would help balance China’s growing military power – while 22.5 per cent worried it would escalate a regional arms race, and 12.3 per cent felt it would undermine international nuclear non-proliferation efforts.

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