• AP, Reuters, Kyodo

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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Tuesday that Japan and Australia have reached a broad agreement on their bilateral defense pact to facilitate more joint operations and exercises on each other’s soil.

The developments further strengthen the defense ties between the two U.S. allies at a time when China is asserting its role in the region and the United States is going through a leadership transition.

The pact, called the Reciprocal Access Agreement, is a legal framework to allow their troops to visit each other’s countries and conduct training and joint operations.

Suga made the comments during a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is visiting Tokyo.

“In the Indo-Pacific region, security and defense cooperation between Japan and Australia, which have the will and capacity to contribute to regional peace and stability, is becoming increasingly important,” Suga said.

“I hereby announce that we reached agreement in principle on a reciprocal access agreement, which had been negotiated to elevate security and defense cooperation between Japan and Australia to a new level.”

It will be Japan’s first agreement covering foreign military presence in its territory since it signed a status of forces agreement in 1960 that allowed the United States to base warships, fighter jets and thousands of troops in and around Japan as part of a military alliance that Washington describes as the bedrock of regional security.

“Our special strategic partnership became even stronger, in particular because today we have taken a significant step forward in Japan and Australia reaching in principle agreement on landmark defense treaty, the Reciprocal Access Agreement,” Morrison said.

The countries have been negotiating the defense deal for six years, and that agreement still needs to be ratified by lawmakers.

At the outset of expanded talks that followed a closed session between just the two leaders and their interpreters, Suga said he hoped to “discuss cooperation that will further strengthen the already firm relations between Japan and Australia in areas of national security, trade and economic relations, and to also achieve the free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

Morrison said the two “like-minded” nations — both liberal democracies with market-based economies — have a special responsibility to help maintain peace in the region.

Japan is committed to maintaining and deepening its 60-year-old alliance with the U.S. as the cornerstone of its diplomacy and security, but has in recent years sought to complement its regional defense by stepping up cooperation with others, especially Australia, amid China’s growing maritime activity that has spread from the East and South China seas and beyond.

Japan still sticks to self-defense and bans first strikes under its postwar pacifist constitution, but bolstered its defense role and spending under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Abe pushed Japan’s military cooperation and weapons compatibility with the U.S. as its forces increasingly work alongside U.S. troops. He also bolstered purchases of costly American stealth fighters and other arsenals.

Suga, who took office in mid-September after Abe resigned due to ill health problems, is carrying on his predecessor’s diplomatic and security policies.

Japan considers Australia as a semi-ally and the two countries signed a defense cooperation agreement in 2007, a first for Japan with a country other than the U.S. The two nations agreed on the sharing of military supplies in 2013, expanding the deal in 2017 to include munitions after Japan eased restrictions on arms equipment transfers.

Japan has initiated a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision of economic and security cooperation as a counter to China’s influence, and recently hosted foreign ministerial talks among the countries known as the “Quad” that also include the U.S., Australia and India.

Those four nations are now seeking to bring in more countries, from Southeast Asia and beyond, that share concerns about China’s increasing assertiveness in the region.

China defends its actions in the regional seas as peaceful and denies violating international rules. It has criticized the Quad as a NATO in Asia to counter China.

Despite its pacifist constitution, Japan’s defense spending ranks among the world’s top 10, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Australia ranks among the top 15.

Suga and Morrison also discussed cooperation in tackling the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 1.3 million worldwide and damaged the global economy, as well as climate change.

Morrison arrived in Japan on Tuesday morning and is set to depart Wednesday morning. He will self-isolate for two weeks upon his return to Australia, which has imposed strict travel restrictions due to COVID-19 concerns, according to Japan’s Foreign Ministry.

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