Head of Research & Academic Development
SAGE International Australia
Member of the SIA Advisory Board
Amid growing regional uncertainty, the Australia-Japan relationship has gained new importance in recent times. And as Professor Purnendra Jain writes, a face-to-face meeting of prime ministers in Tokyo and the signing of a visiting military forces agreement has been a good start for relations under Japan’s new leader Yoshihide Suga.
Still, Morrison was the first international leader to pay Suga a visit at home since he succeeded Shinzo Abe, the longest serving prime minister of Japan, in September. That a face-to-face meeting between the leaders of these two key nations of the Indo-Pacific occurred amid a pandemic both symbolised the importance, and contributed to, the substance of an already-strong bilateral relationship.
Zooming-in on Defence and Security
The two leaders covered a lot of important ground – promoting the bilateral economic partnership; seeking collaboration in new sources of energy, such as hydrogen; discussing global and regional challenges; and outlining cooperation at multilateral and mini-lateral forums. But the most important item on their agenda was a final discussion on a defence agreement that had been under negotiation since 2014.
As expected, the two prime ministers gave in-principle backing to a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) to facilitate two-way visits by military personnel, taking the two nations’ defence ties and ‘special strategic partnership’ to a new level. When finally endorsed by the Japanese parliament, which is almost certain, the RAA will allow joint training and operations on each other’s soil, deepening cooperation between the Australian Defence Force and Japan’s Self Defence Force. Australia is just the second country, after the US, to have such an arrangement with Japan.We should be clear – this is not an alliance or even quasi-alliance, let alone an Asian NATO, as it might be construed by some. But it is a significant development in the Australia-Japan bilateral relationship and builds on their long-term engagement and their mutual trust and respect, including decades of cooperation in commerce, culture and diplomacy.
Why this Pact now?
Casual observers might assume this is a sudden development in view of Australia’s deteriorating relations with China, which today stand at their lowest point. Commentaries from Beijing have already pointed us in that direction. However, Australia and Japan have been strengthening their defence and security ties for several years, beginning with a defence cooperation agreement in 2007 – a first for Japan outside the long-standing security treaty it has with the United States that underwrites its conventional security and provides for an extension of the US nuclear umbrella.
The 2007 agreement was followed by an agreement on military supplies in 2013 and the Australia-Japan Acquisition and Cross‑Servicing Agreement (ACSA) in 2017, which facilitates closer bilateral defence logistics support and co-operation during activities such as combined exercises, training and peacekeeping operations. Japan and Australia also hold bilateral military exercises such as Nichi Gou Trident and the biennial Exercise Kakadu. Furthermore, for many years they have held defence and security dialogues within the framework of the 2+2 foreign and defence ministers’ meetings.
Japanese navy ship Sazanami DD-113 participates in Exercise Kakadu operations, Darwin, Australia – September 11, 2018. Image credit: pichitchai, Shutterstock.
Besides bilateral defence and security cooperation and regular dialogue, Australia and Japan have revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad, which includes India and the United States. Foreign ministers of these countries last met in Tokyo in October this year. The four nations also participated in the 2020 Malabar naval exercises, with Australia returning to this process for the first time since withdrawing in 2008.
Changing Strategic Environments
Certainly, the fast changing global and regional strategic environment, especially China’s military assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, its long military standoff with India across the Himalayas, and its punitive measures against Australia’s exports have given significant tailwind to Australia-Japan defence ties.
No less significant is the relative and gradual decline of the United States and the behaviour of President Donald Trump towards US allies and partners around the world. The commitment of the Biden administration to supporting and working with old allies is uncertain, given the political and social divisiveness within American society.
Australia and Japan as two key middle powers in the Indo-Pacific have a history of initiating and building new regional architectures in times of strategic uncertainty. Their role in establishing the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum around the time when the Cold War arrangements were crumbling, and more recently in their efforts to rescue the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) together with other countries when the Trump administration withdrew from it in 2017, are some examples of the Australia-Japan contribution to building regional economic architecture. Additionally, Australia and Japan were early promoters of the Indo-Pacific concept, which has been adopted as a useful strategic construct by many regional and extra-regional powers, including the US, France and Germany.
Although China is the leading economic power, and many countries including Australia and Japan have deep economic ties with China, Beijing’s strategic moves and military behaviour have caused concerns in many quarters of the world. Similarly, while the United States remains the most powerful nation militarily, with many allies and partners around the world, Washington’s political heft and its willingness to commit have diminished, making countries that had come to rely on American power as a source of stability a little nervous.
In view of these strategic developments, nations are in the process of recalibrating their political and security options. A decade-long transformation in defence and security ties between Australia and Japan and their push towards trilateral and quadrilateral frameworks that include India and the US is a direct response to the increased uncertainty.
Morrison-Suga Personal Rapport
Australia-Japan relations remain robust and durable, based on solid norms and institutions. However, personal ties between leaders are no less significant than institutions.
In this context, it would appear that Morrison and Suga have started on the right note. Morrison was the first foreign leader to speak to Suga and congratulate him when he took office and Morrison has now become the first international leader to hold a meeting with Suga on Japanese soil, and in the process jointly announcing a significant agreement.
At their meeting, the two leaders exuded a relaxed demeanour, referring to each other by the nicknames ‘ScoMo’ and ‘Yoshi’. The easy familiarity between leaders and the substance of the business transacted marked a propitious start to a new era in bilateral relations.