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Japan and Australia strengthen quasi-alliance with eye on China

  • January 7, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 3:07 a.m.
  • English Press

JUNNOSUKE KOBARA, Nikkei security affairs editor


TOKYO — The defense agreement signed Thursday by Japan and Australia smooths the way for joint drills by their armed forces with an eye on China, marking Tokyo’s first pact of its kind with a nation other than its ally, the U.S.


Concerns over China were underscored in the statement issued by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Australian counterpart Scott Morrison after their virtual meeting.


The two leaders expressed opposition to “any destabilizing or coercive unilateral actions that seek to alter the status quo and increase tensions” in the East China Sea, where China’s military and coast guard have been active. They stressed the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and voiced concern about reported human rights abuses in Xinjiang.



The statement said that the Reciprocal Access Agreement will “facilitate cooperative activities such as joint exercises and disaster relief operations, including those of greater scale and complexity” between the Australian military and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.


Japan’s Foreign Ministry sees the deal — which took seven and a half years to sign — as a template for faster negotiations with other partners such as the U.K., with which Tokyo recently entered talks on reciprocal access.


Australia has increased engagement with Indo-Pacific partners, participating in the Quad defense framework with Japan, the U.S. and India and the new AUKUS defense pact with the U.S. and U.K.


The new agreement simplifies entry procedures for each country’s forces and clarifies their legal status, including which laws apply under what circumstances. This was a sticking point during the negotiations, as Japan maintains the death penalty while Australia has abolished it.


The deal is Japan’s first agreement of this kind besides its Status of Forces Agreement with the U.S., Tokyo’s sole treaty ally, reflecting increasingly close cooperation with Canberra on security.


While Australia’s military is smaller than Japan’s, at just under 60,000 troops compared with the 220,000-strong SDF, it has participated in combat operations including the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Japan looks to learn from its battlefield experience.


Japan’s Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, a Ground Self-Defense Force unit designed to defend isolated islands, joined Australian troops and U.S. and U.K. Marines last summer for a large-scale exercise in Australia. Together they rehearsed tactics to fend off an invasion.


Tokyo has more agreements on security cooperation with Australia than with any other partner save for the U.S., including the 2010 Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement and an information security deal in 2012.


The two countries signed an agreement in 2014 on transfers of defense equipment and technology, a necessity for exports and joint development, and have held nine “two plus two” meetings of top defense and diplomatic officials since 2007. A Maritime Self-Defense Force ship escorted an Australian frigate last year, the first time Tokyo has provided such protection to a non-U.S. vessel.


Japan has pursued deeper security relationships with other partners beyond Washington, including the U.K., India, France and Germany, to better deal with China’s growing military might.


Taiwan has seen increasingly large incursions into its air defense identification zone by Chinese fighter jets in recent months. China also conducted an aircraft carrier drill in Pacific last year, in which fighter jets took off and landed.


Should China invade Taiwan, many experts say Japan’s southwestern Nansei Islands would lie within the battle theater. Japan and the U.S. look to present a united front with Australia, India and European partners to deter such a move.

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