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Commentary: Five key takeaways from the Japan-Australia Reciprocal Access Agreement

  • June 12, 2020
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press




PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – Reports have come out that Japanese and Australian officials have finally concluded their negotiations on a reciprocal access agreement (RAA). If the reports are accurate, the negotiators will now forward their “ad referendum” (for referral) agreement for signing at the planned summit between Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Scott Morrison in July.


The RAA covers what is required for the Self-Defense Forces to operate in and around Australia, and for the Australian Defense Force to do the same in Japan. The reciprocity of the agreement is why it is termed a reciprocal access agreement rather than a “visiting forces” or “status of forces” agreement, and its provisions cover things such as taxation, basing, entry and exit procedures, and criminal jurisdiction.


In other words, the issues covered in the RAA are mundane to most observers save for those terms and conditions related to major incidents and accidents. For example, how do the two governments respond legally if an SDF member kills an Australian civilian in a freak training accident? These situations are much trickier to negotiate; in fact, one of the critical sticking points for the RAA was Australia’s reticence to allow any of its members to be vulnerable to the death penalty under Japan’s legal system.


Many will be wondering what to make of this recent development. After all, the negotiation process has taken six years, and there are strategic implications for Japan and Australia as they seek to bolster their partnership amid increasingly assertive Chinese behavior. This deal also carries specific significance for Japan, whose security practice has been slowly evolving over the past decades to see the SDF take on more active roles in regional and international security. While there are several important takeaways from the conclusion of these negotiations, this article offers five for observers and practitioners.


First, this agreement is epoch-making. This will be Japan’s first agreement covering foreign military presence in its sovereign territory since the 1960 Status of Forces Agreement with the United States, and the first agreement that Japan has concluded for its troops operating abroad since the 2009 Japan-Djibouti Status of Forces Agreement.


It signals a new era in Japanese security practice, opening the door for Japan to welcome other middle powers to its shores independent of its lone U.S. ally. Some will call this “hedging,” but the U.S.-Japan alliance is not going away anytime soon. Rather, this step is representative of a more proactive Japan that is institutionalizing middle power security relationships as part of its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy.


Second, the agreement will require ratification in the Diet. Because this agreement is groundbreaking, it will invariably generate an opportunity for the opposition to challenge the Abe administration during Diet interpellations, in which sitting members of committee or plenary meetings present questions about the accord. The government’s responses become de facto policy unless formally clarified or retracted in the Diet.


This means that if an opposition party member asks a tough question about a provision in the RAA, the administration’s response could render unilateral reinterpretation of what might have been agreed upon at the negotiating table. Thus, while language of the agreement will remain unchanged, Japanese positions may formally change owing to domestic politics. Those interested in the implementation of the RAA will need to monitor the government responses to inform the implementation process and gain a clearer understanding of how far Japan is able to go in operationalizing the new agreement.


Third, anything that comes from the RAA will be precedent-setting, and that precedent will impact any future security arrangements that Japan pursues with prospective partners. In principle, Japanese defense bureaucrats employ three things when developing policies: the law, toben (government’s answers to questions during Diet interpellations) and precedent. Since the RAA has no precedent, every new circumstance that emerges in implementing the agreement will be precedent-setting.


Both Japanese and Australian practitioners will need to be aware of this because every decision they make now will have implications for years to come. It also means that implementation may be slow-going, as Japanese bureaucrats agonize over every detail of new activity carried out under the terms of the RAA, not least of which is coordination with local municipalities who will host the Australian Defense Force for training and operations.


Fourth, Japan’s negotiations on future visiting forces or reciprocal access agreements should move along much faster. As long as future security partners follow the RAA framework, crafting their respective agreements with Japan should proceed more smoothly. Japanese and Australian negotiators slowly blazed the trail, and once the agreement is ratified in the Diet, the legal precedent will be in place.


Prospective security partners like the United Kingdom, Canada and France will need to examine the provisions of the agreement and temper expectations based on what the Australians were able to achieve. They will also have to understand that if they are unwilling or unable to concede as much as the Australian government did in the RAA, they will have to lessen expectations further.


Fifth, expect renewed calls for revision of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement. For many, the fact that the Japan-U.S. alliance is fundamentally different from the Japan-Australia security relationship both in principle and in practice won’t matter. It also won’t matter that there are hundreds of implementation agreements concluded at the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee and its subcommittees over the course of literally thousands of formal, documented meetings. If there are disparities in the line-by-line comparison of the 1960 Status of Forces Agreement and 2020 Reciprocal Access Agreement, critics will renew their arguments that the Japan-U.S. SOFA must be revised.


There will assuredly be additional takeaways that come from this groundbreaking development in the Japan-Australia security relationship. It has been a long time coming for the two countries, but with this, the next step in institutionalizing their alignment is nearly complete. So, too, is the next step in the evolution of Japan’s postwar security practice.


Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He was deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Japan.

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