Australia and Japan have taken a major step towards signing a long-awaited defence pact which will enable both countries to intensify military cooperation in the face of rising tensions with China.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced an “in-principle agreement” on the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) after holding their first face-to-face meeting in Tokyo.
Officials have spent six years negotiating the agreement, which will provide a legal and administrative framework for both forces visiting the other country.
It marks a significant milestone for Japan, which has not struck a pact on a foreign military presence since the Status of Forces Agreement it signed with the United States 60 years ago.
Mr Morrison hailed the agreement as a “pivotal moment in the history of Japan-Australia ties”.
“The significance of the RAA cannot be understated,” he said.
“It will form a key plank of Australia’s and Japan’s response to an increasingly challenging security environment in our region amid more uncertain strategic circumstances.”
Defense Pact awaiting approval from Japanese Parliament
Defence officials believe the agreement will help facilitate cooperation between the two countries, including in the increasingly contested waters of the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
In a joint statement released late on Tuesday, the two leaders “expressed serious concerns” about the situation in both seas, and “reconfirmed their strong opposition to any coercive or unilateral attempts to change the status quo and thereby increase tensions in the region”.
China has vast territorial claims in both seas which are disputed by Japan and numerous South-East Asian countries.
In another nod to Beijing, the statement “emphasised the importance of upholding Hong Kong’s democratic processes and institutions”, which includes “the high degree of autonomy set out in the Basic Law and Sino-British Joint Declaration”.
It is also a sign that Japan is increasingly willing to build defence relationships with countries beyond the United States and take a more assertive role in the region.
Japan and Australia have already lifted the tempo of defence cooperation in recent years.
Earlier this month, the two nations joined the United States and India for the Malabar naval exercises.
Mr Morrison said the agreement would see more exercises like Malabar carried out.
“We expect to increase our regional cooperation in many forms — and the Malabar exercises have been conducted together with the US and India and we’d expect to further expand our cooperation in those areas,” he told the media after having dinner with Mr Suga.
Negotiations on the reciprocal access agreement had been torturous and regularly became bogged down.
But Japanese officials would not give that commitment.
The pact does not need to be approved by the Australian Parliament, but it will need to be approved by Japan’s.
“We were able to resolve it by ensuring Australia could satisfy all of our international obligations in relation to that matter,” Mr Morrison said.
“That has been a key factor for us as we’ve worked through this issue.
“We’re pleased that was able to be worked through with the Japanese Government and I thank both Prime Minister Suga and his predecessor Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe for getting to that point.”
A Brilliant Start
Mr Morrison invited Mr Suga to visit Australia next year to formally sign the agreement.
Not only is this the first international trip Mr Morrison has made since the start of the pandemic, but he is the first overseas leader Mr Suga has hosted in Japan since he took over the top job in September.
Mr Morrison said they had “got off to a cracker of a start” and Mr Suga had invited him to call him Yoshi.
The Prime Minister reciprocated by saying Mr Suga could call him ScoMo, which he said Mr Abe had also called him.
“I think our first impressions were shared and they were very warm,” he said.
“In many ways we share quite a few experiences, both how we came to our various parliaments and indeed how we — in rather unpredictable circumstances — found ourselves in the roles we’re in now.
“It’s not a small thing for a prime minister in the middle of a pandemic to take that opportunity, and [I have to] have two weeks’ [quarantine] when I return, including having to participate in Parliament by video link. That’s how important it was to me to ensure that it continued the momentum we had with Prime Minister Abe.”
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