Evolving Australia-Japan Defense Ties

by Simran Walia

Australia and Japan are two vital partners in the Indo-Pacific region and the Quad and are special strategic partners that are committed to values of freedom, democracy, and rule of law. In November 2020, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and his Japanese counterpart Yoshihide Suga reached a basic agreement on a bilateral defence pact, that would further allow their troops to work closely. The agreement has been called a ‘Reciprocal Access Agreement’ (RAA), which would allow their troops to visit each other’s countries for training and joint operations and would also enhance their interoperability. Recently, in June 2021, the two nations held their ninth 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministerial consultations which further leads to the evolving nature of the defence ties between Japan and Australia.

Japan and Australia are strong US allies that seek to bolster their ties to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region. The defense agreement between the two nations is indeed one of its kind, especially for Japan ever since its 1960 status of forces agreement with the US. The agreement with the US had set the terms for putting around 50,000 American troops to operate in and around Japan under the Japan-US security pact. Japan has been strongly committed to maintaining its 60-year-old alliance with the US as the basis of its security. However, in recent years, it has sought to establish its regional defence by trying to cooperate with other nations such as Australia, amidst China’s growing maritime activity. Japan has limited itself to self-defence due to the ‘Pacifist Constitution’ but increased its defence role under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan sees Australia as a semi-ally and the two nations agreed on the sharing of military supplies in 2013 and expanded it in 2017, which included munitions when Japan eased restrictions on arms equipment transfers.

Australian forces do have access to several bases in Japan, which are earmarked for the defence of the Korean Peninsula including sanctions enforcement. Moreover, Japanese forces have also participated with the US in exercises in Australia for several years. During the meeting between Defence Ministers of both the nations in October 2020, it was agreed that the developing frameworks for future cooperation between Japan’s Self-Defence Forces and Australian forces would begin.

PM Suga and Morrison have also expressed their concerns about the grave situation in the South and East China Seas and strong opposition towards militarizing disputed islands, and unilateral attempts to change the status quo. However, at the same time, China is also the biggest trading partner of both Japan and Australia. Australian and Japanese interests are closely aligned but are not identical and they also face challenges that require multilateral solutions. The defence agreement could prove to be one of the solutions to counter Chinese aggressive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific region. China has always defended its actions in the regional seas as peaceful and has also criticized the Quad as an ‘Asian NATO’ to counter China. Australia also supports Japan’s vision of free and open Indo-Pacific to further counter Chinese moves. Despite its pacifist constitution, Japan’s defence spending ranks among the top 10 in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

In a joint news conference, PM Suga said, “I hereby announce that we reached an agreement in principle on a Reciprocal Access Agreement, which had been negotiated to elevate security and defence cooperation between Japan and Australia to a new level”. The defence pact also establishes streamlined arrangements to support the deployment of defence forces. Australia has strained relations with China after Australian allegations of Chinese meddling in its affairs and Japan’s relations with China have been deteriorating over their territorial dispute of the Senkaku Islands, claimed by China as the Diaoyu islands. Morrison’s visit to Tokyo in November 2020 also paved the way for increased defence cooperation and joint exercises between Japan and Australia. Deepening Japan’s defence ties with Australia also lines with Tokyo’s efforts to encourage like-minded countries to pursue its free and open Indo-Pacific vision. Australia’s strategic interest also lies in bringing Japan out into the region than gaining military access to Japan.

Recent Endeavours

In May 2021, the Defence Ministers of Japan and Australia reaffirmed their commitment to oppose unilateral attempts to change the status quo in East and South China Sea by deepening their ties to counter China’s assertiveness in the region. The Japanese ministry also pointed out that the two ministers vowed to step up their trilateral defence cooperation with the United States to pursue a free and open Indo-Pacific.

The ninth Japan-Australia 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministerial consultations were held in June 2021 via video conferencing. The two nations reaffirmed to deepen their cooperation to promote a free and inclusive Indo-Pacific wherein, disputes are resolved peacefully. The two nations have also reiterated the importance of close cooperation with their common ally, the United States. The two countries have expressed their utmost concerns regarding China’s Coast Guard Law and reaffirmed that the actions of a state’s coast guard shall remain consistent with international law. For the first time, Japan and Australia talked about the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues, which would infuriate China.

Japan and Australia have highlighted the interoperability that their forces share through air, ground, and maritime exercises and operations. The two nations have affirmed to increase the sophistication of bilateral exercises and operations between the Japan self-defence forces and the Australian defence force.

Morrison and Suga have also committed to promoting coordination with the United States and India in the Quad to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific and counter China’s aggressiveness. Concerns regarding stability over the Indo-Pacific region grew stronger after a recent enactment of a Chinese maritime law, which allowed its Coast Guard ships to fire on foreign vessels in waters that Beijing claims to be its territory. Tokyo and Canberra also agreed that Japan’s Self-Defence Forces will protect Australian military aircraft and ships upon request in non-combatant situations to further bolster their security and defence ties.

The development of defence cooperation between Australia and Japan is more vital than ever. The Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) would also carry a wider significance since these two nations are the US’s key allies. It remains to be seen what they are prepared to do together in terms of countering China’s aggressive behaviour.

Simran Walia is a Research Scholar, pursuing M.Phil in Japanese Studies under the Centre for East Asian Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Prior to this, she was working as a Research Assistant at ORF, New Delhi. She has published articles and papers in magazines and websites like The Diplomat, The Geopolitics, Indian Defence Review, Global Policy Journal and elsewhere. Her research interests include Japanese politics and foreign policy and East Asian foreign policy too. She can be reached at her Twitter handle: @simranwalia10