Tokyo and Canberra agreed Thursday to reinforce defense cooperation in Asia amid rising tensions over North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling and try harder to engage Washington in the effort.
“Australia is our special strategic partner that shares basic values and strategic interests with us. We agreed to promote our cooperation to strengthen a free and open international order that is based on the laws,” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said.
In the so-called two-plus-two foreign and defense chief meeting, Kishida and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada met with their visiting Australian counterparts, Julie Bishop and Marise Payne, respectively, in Tokyo. It was their seventh such meeting.
The dialogue comes at a “difficult and challenging” time for the Asia-Pacific region amid repeated rounds of nuclear provocations by North Korea, Bishop said at the start of the meeting.
North Korea is widely viewed as being on the cusp of its sixth nuclear test in the run-up to the 85th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean People’s Army on April 25.
“We’re living in a more uncertain security environment, which makes this meeting even more opportune and timely,” Bishop said, emphasizing such a meeting has always been a reassuring reminder that Japan and Australia are “guarded by the same values and common interests and similar worldviews.”
“Australia sees Japan among the most like-minded nations in the Indo-Pacific,” she said.
At a joint news conference after the meeting, Inada revealed the four agreed that “continued engagement” by the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region is necessary and that Japan and Australia will “powerfully promote” trilateral defense cooperation involving the U.S.
The high-profile dialogue between the two pairs of ministers comes on the heels of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s first visit to Japan earlier this week.
After speaking with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday, Pence assured Tokyo that, amid the “most ominous” threat emanating from the North, “we are with you 100 percent,” reaffirming the White House’s position that it will further pursue “diplomatic and economic dialogue” to keep the recalcitrant North in check, although “all options are on the table.”
“We have discussed specific issues including escalating threats posed by North Korea. And while we support the United States approach that all options (will be on) the table with regard to curbing North Korea’s illegal and belligerent behavior, we share a common view that we want to ensure stability and security on the Korean Peninsula by peaceful means,” Bishop said.
Before Thursday’s meeting, Inada had held a talk with Payne on Wednesday in which the two agreed to beef up trilateral cooperation with the U.S.
“Amid the increasing severity of our regional security landscape, defense cooperation between Japan and Australia has become extremely important,” Inada told Payne at the onset of the chat, according to the Defense Ministry.
Although Japan does not have a security treaty with Australia, it nonetheless characterizes the country as a “semi-ally,” with their bilateral relationship recently bolstered anew by their shared “strong opposition to any coercive or unilateral” attempt to alter the status quo in the East China Sea, as was stated in Abe’s summit meeting with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in December 2015.
While they did not single out any country for criticism, it is widely believed the two leaders were referring to China’s maritime assertiveness.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Inada and Payne also agreed that the two nations will conduct a joint military drill involving fighter jets in Japan next year, in what was touted as the latest initiative to further deepen their bilateral relationship.
They also hailed the recent revision of the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement, a bilateral pact designed to improve logistics support between their militaries during U.N. peacekeeping operations, international relief operations, joint exercises and other occasions.
Japan’s enactment of two divisive security laws in summer 2015 paved the way for the expansion of the ACSA, which initially took effect in January 2013, adding ammunition to a list of supplies the Self-Defense Forces is authorized to provide to Australian forces.
Staff writer Reiji Yoshida contributed to this report