The leaders of Australia and Japan held in-person talks on Tuesday and reached a basic agreement on a bilateral defense pact that would allow their troops to work more closely, as the two U.S. allies seek to bolster their ties to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Japanese counterpart, Suga Yoshihide, said the legal framework, called a Reciprocal Access Agreement, would allow their troops to visit each other’s countries for training and joint operations. It would also enhance their inter-operability and cooperation, they said.
The deal is the first of its kind for Japan since its 1960 status of forces agreement with the United States, which set the terms for the basing of about 50,000 American troops to operate in and around Japan under the Japan-U.S. security pact.
The two leaders also agreed to cooperate in tackling climate change, including “working together for a lower emission and zero emission future,” Morrison told a joint news conference.
He called the defense agreement a “landmark” development for the two countries, which are both allies of the U.S. while maintaining significant trade with China. Australia and Japan also have very strong and positive relations with all countries in the Indo-Pacific, Morrison said.
Japan is committed to maintaining and deepening its 60-year-old alliance with the U.S. as the cornerstone of its diplomacy and security, but has in recent years sought to complement its regional defense by stepping up cooperation with others, especially Australia, amid growing Chinese maritime activity.
Japan officially limits itself to self-defense and bans first strikes under its post-World War II pacifist constitution, but increased its defense role and spending under former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.
Abe pushed for greater military cooperation and weapons compatibility with the U.S. as Japanese forces increasingly work alongside U.S. troops. He also increased purchases of costly American stealth fighters and other weapons.
Suga, who took office in September after Abe resigned due to ill health, is continuing his predecessor’s diplomatic and security policies.
Japan considers Australia to be a semi-ally and the two countries signed a defense cooperation agreement in 2007, a first for Japan with a country other than the U.S. The two nations agreed on the sharing of military supplies in 2013 and expanded the deal in 2017 to include munitions after Japan eased restrictions on arms equipment transfers.
Suga said Japan and Australia are “special strategic partners” that are both committed to fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and are working together to achieve peace and stability in the region.
Suga said the new agreement underpins their determination to contribute to regional peace and will “elevate our security cooperation to a new level.”
In a joint statement, Suga and Morrison expressed “serious concerns about the situation” in the South and East China Seas and “strong opposition” to militarizing disputed islands and other unilateral attempts to change the status quo, without identifying China — signaling their sensitivity toward their biggest trading partner.
Australian and Japanese interests are closely aligned but not identical and their approach to China and other countries in Asia differ, says Shiro Armstrong, director of the Australia-Japan Research Center at the Australian National University.
“Deft and strategic diplomacy and cooperation will be needed to manage and navigate the China-U.S. relationship,” he wrote in the East Asia Forum online research platform. “Australia and Japan face challenges that require multilateral solutions.”
Japan has initiated a vision of economic and security cooperation called the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” as a counter to China’s influence, and recently hosted talks among the foreign ministers of four countries known as the Quad — Japan, the U.S., Australia and India.
Those four nations are now seeking to add more countries, from Southeast Asia and beyond, that share concerns about China’s growing assertiveness in the region.
Tuesday’s basic agreement on a Japan-Australia defense pact comes as the navies of the Quad nations hold a joint exercise in the Northern Arabian Sea seen as part of their regional initiative to counter China.
China defends its actions in the regional seas as peaceful and denies violating international rules. It has criticized the Quad as an “Asian NATO” to counter China.
Despite its pacifist constitution, Japan’s defense spending ranks among the top 10 in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Australia is among the top 15.
At the end of their news conference, Morrison presented Suga with a set of medals from the 2000 Sydney Olympics and wished Japan success with hosting the 2021 Tokyo Games, which were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Reported by Mari Yamaguchi for the Associated Press in Tokyo, Japan.