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Prime Minister Abe and Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull meet in Tokyo and agree to boost defense ties

by Tomohiro Osaki and Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writers

Visiting Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe agreed Thursday in Tokyo to bolster cooperation to ensure a “free, open, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific region” built on a “rule-based order,” effectively endorsing Japan’s strategy to keep China’s growing military power in check in the region.

In a joint statement released the same day, the two leaders also agreed to promote “deeper and broader defense cooperation” this year, including exercises, operations, capacity building and mutual visits by the military forces of the two countries.

Abe has advocated a policy of pursuing a “free and open Indo-Pacific region,” which calls for freedom of maritime navigation and opposes any unilateral action to change the status-quo. It is widely seen as designed to urge China to rein in its growing assertiveness at sea.

“Our relationship is about shared values. We are seeking to achieve the same objective as you’ve described as a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific,'” Turnbull told reporters soon after the summit.

The two leaders reaffirmed their “determination” to urge member countries to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement so that it will quickly go into effect, according to the statement.

Japan and Australia have also been negotiating to conclude a new military pact that would specify the legal status of military personnel temporarily staying in each other’s countries for drills, and aims to simplify procedures needed for the transport of military equipment.

In the joint statement, the leaders said they “underscored the importance”of such a pact and “directed all relevant ministers to conclude the negotiations as early as (is) feasible.”

Although Japan has a Status Forces Agreement with the U.S. codifying rules over its troops stationed across the country, the envisaged pact with Canberra is fundamentally different in that it would apply only for short-term stays by the Australian military in Japan. If struck, the deal would be the first of its kind for Japan.

Japan views its relationship with Australia as a “special strategic partnership” — a term first used by Abe and his former Australian counterpart Tony Abbott in 2014 — while some media outlets refer to Australia as a “quasi ally.”

The two leaders agreed to work toward the conclusion of the military pact — dubbed a “reciprocal access agreement” by Australia — at the “earliest date possible,” although there was no mention of a specific timescale, according to a senior government official in Japan.

“Since negotiation of this pact is a first-time experience for Japan, there are still many issues we need to work out,” the official said.

The signing of a new military pact would represent the culmination of bilateral efforts to bolster Japan-Australia defense ties in recent years, said Takayuki Nagano, a professor of international relations at Dokkyo University.

Since the 2007 unveiling of a joint declaration on security cooperation, the two nations have steadily worked on strengthening their defense synergy, most prominently by inking an Acquisition and Cross-serving Agreement (ACSA), in 2010.

Last year, they upgraded the agreement in line with the enactment of Japan’s state-backed security legislation granting the Self-Defense Forces a greater operational role overseas.

The newest version now facilitates the exchange of supplies, including ammunition, food and fuel, as well as various services between the two nations when they engage in joint military drills.

To further add to their defense cooperation, Tokyo and Canberra also signed the Information Security Agreement in 2012, spelling out procedures necessary for the exchange and mutual protection of classified information.

Efforts by Tokyo and Canberra to ramp up defense ties coincide with escalating tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs as well as China’s flexing of military muscles.

But Nagano points out another factor is at play in their pursuit of a closer partnership in Asia: U.S. President Donald Trump.

The unpredictability of Trump, Nagano said, has left its allies questioning America’s ability to maintain its presence in Asia, “increasing the need for Japan and Australia to construct a stronger partnership in the Asia Pacific region.”

A new military pact, Nagano said, may potentially be construed as a message against China, leaving open the possibility that Beijing “may express concerns” over the deal.

Turnbull, he said, will find himself needing to strike a delicate balance as he both seeks to “further strengthen defense cooperation with Washington and Tokyo” and “pursue engagement with China economically.”

China, having accounted for the biggest share of Australia’s trade at 23.2 percent in 2015, according to Japan’s Foreign Ministry, remains an “indispensable” economic partner with Canberra, the professor said.

In his meeting with Abe, Turnbull also raised the issue of Japan’s whaling program, according to the Japanese official. Japan has traditionally maintained the position that its whaling is for “scientific purposes,” and Abe, the official said, responded to Turnbull by calling for a greater effort to “implement effective measures to stop the acts of radical sabotage” spearheaded by some conservation groups.

The whaling issue, Abe was quoted by the official as telling Turnbull, “should not affect overall bilateral relationships.”

Turnbull’s visit to Japan only lasted a day, with the prime minister expected to leave Tokyo late Thursday night.

Japan and Australia agreed in 2014 that the two prime ministers will visit one another’s country every year. Abe visited Australia in January last year.

Upon his arrival in Tokyo early Thursday morning, Turnbull had flown to a Ground Self-Defense Force camp in the city of Narashino, Chiba Prefecture, where he was greeted by what he called a “magnificent demonstration of capability” by the SDF.