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Japan nears defense access deal with quasi-ally Australia next year

TOKYO — Japan and Australia are preparing to sign a long-debated pact next year that would make it easier for each country’s forces to enter the other for joint exercises, Nikkei has learned.

 

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government aims to conclude the reciprocal access agreement soon and bring it before parliament for approval as early as next year’s regular session.

 

The agreement is representative of a deepening relationship with Canberra that Tokyo looks to use as a template for similar quasi-alliances beyond its security treaty with the U.S. This would expand their options for multilateral defense cooperation as China builds up its military.

 

The reciprocal access agreement would streamline both countries’ complex entry procedures for foreign defense forces and equipment, which have become increasingly burdensome as the two engage in more joint exercises.

 

The agreement would be Japan’s first of this kind with another country besides the U.S. The Status of Forces Agreement between Washington and Tokyo exempts American troops deployed in Japan from certain entry requirements.

 

Tokyo and Canberra began negotiating the access agreement in 2014. Concerns over the risk of Australian troops potentially being subject to the death penalty in Japan proved a major stumbling block.

 

The two sides eventually agreed that Japan will not have jurisdiction in cases involving troops carrying out their official duties, but crimes outside that context will be subject to Japanese law.

 

Security cooperation between the two countries made rapid advances. A Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer escorted an Australian naval frigate during exercises this month, marking the first time forces have protected a non-U.S. foreign warship.

 

To improve coordination, the Australian Army in January stationed a liaison officer in Japan, and the Ground Self-Defense Force plans to send one to Australia in the first half of 2022.

 

Both countries are acting with an eye toward China and its increasing military activities in the region.

 

Chinese and Russian warships nearly circumnavigated Japan together for the first time in October. This month, a Chinese naval vessel sailed through Japanese territorial waters off the coast of the southwestern prefecture of Kagoshima for the first time in four years. Chinese and Russian bombers recently conducted a joint patrol over the East China Sea.

 

Australia, the U.S. and the U.K. recently announced a trilateral security pact with an eye toward China, and Japan sees this AUKUS partnership as an opportunity for expanded cooperation.

 

Such collaboration can take a variety of forms, such as “two-plus-two” meetings of foreign and defense ministers, and agreements on exports of defense equipment and intelligence sharing.

 

Japan has already covered much ground with Australia. The two countries have deals governing defense equipment transfers and intelligence, along with an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement to enable sharing of fuel and other supplies.

 

The Defense Ministry has positioned the U.K. as a key partner as well. Tokyo and London have entered talks on a reciprocal access agreement, and Japan is considering escorting British warships. There have been more opportunities for joint drills recently, including with the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in August.

 

An acquisition and cross-servicing agreement between Japan and India took effect this year. Japan has also signed an information-sharing deal with Germany, with which it held its first-ever two-plus-two meeting virtually in April.

 

Tokyo is shoring up partnerships in Southeast Asia as well, signing defense equipment transfer agreements with Indonesia and Vietnam and looking to arrange its first two-plus-two talks with the Philippines.

 

By JUNNOSUKE KOBARA, Nikkei staff writer

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