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U.S. allies such as Japan and Australia are deepening military ties in response to China’s growing assertiveness — and it’s going beyond mere rhetoric.

The two countries, which are working toward a new bilateral defense pact, recently conducted ground-breaking naval drills. Canberra is also acquiring new naval capabilities that will allow it to project military power far beyond its waters, in anticipation of a contingency involving China.

China’s increased assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region is driving some countries to deepen their defense and security cooperation. As tensions with Beijing grow over territorial disputes, access to maritime resources and the status of Taiwan, Tokyo and Canberra have stepped up their bilateral relationship in recent years in support of what they describe as “an Indo-Pacific region that is free and open, secure, inclusive and prosperous.”

The most recent display of this enhanced cooperation took place during the latest iteration of the bilateral maritime Nichi Gou Trident exercise last month, during which, for the first time, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) protected a non-U.S. military asset.

More precisely, the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s (MSDF) Murasame-class guided-missile destroyer JS Inazuma escorted the Royal Australian Navy’s Anzac-class frigate HMAS Warramunga during maneuvers held in waters south of Shikoku, after receiving a request from the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

The Defense Ministry in Tokyo said the move demonstrated the high level of interoperability between the two navies, while also indicating how “much closer collaboration has become possible between Japan and Australia.”

The naval escort was agreed on during a virtual meeting in June between the foreign and defense ministers of the two countries. Due to its pacifist Constitution, Japan had lacked the legal foundation to allow the SDF to help defend allies until recent years, but this was made possible through legislation and new guidelines in 2015, as well as revisions to Japan’s SDF law which enables the SDF to protect weapons and other equipment of certain foreign forces.

The two sides plan to “increase the complexity and sophistication of bilateral exercises and operations” between the SDF and the ADF, including through air-to-air refueling, and they reaffirmed the importance of their respective alliances with the United States.

Alignment with broader U.S. regional strategy

The security policies between these two U.S. allies are aligned with Washington’s “integrated deterrence” strategy, a concept that seeks to combine the efforts of the U.S. and its allies and leverage technological advantages.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin said in July that Washington’s “new, 21st-century vision” for the region relies on pursuing stronger defense cooperation with allies and partners to better meet a range of challenges, including “the specter of coercion from rising powers,” an allusion to China and Russia.

Austin also said that integrated deterrence means working with partners to “deter coercion and aggression across the spectrum of conflict,” including in so-called gray zone areas “where the rights and livelihoods of the people of Southeast Asia are coming under stress.”

As a result, several militaries in the region are increasing exchanges and holding more exercises to enhance interoperability. This can be seen in the actions taken by not only Japan and Australia, but also by other countries such as Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea, New Zealand and India.

Extended deployments

To back up the deterrence policy with action, the Australian Navy is acquiring capabilities to extend its reach across the Indo-Pacific region to support its upgraded fleet, including its new Hobart-class destroyers.

Canberra is turning to power projection scenarios in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea — and in the future possibly also the East China Sea — in a bid to underpin U.S.-led efforts to deter Beijing in its strategic calculations to convince China that it will not achieve political gains through military means.

For instance, the Australian Navy last month commissioned its second and final Supply-class replenishment ship. Named HMAS Stalwart, the ship — along with first-of-class HMAS Supply — will be a “critical support element to contemporary maritime operations” across the Indo-Pacific region, the Australian Department of Defence said.

The Supply-class ships are intended to carry fuel, dry cargo, water, food, ammunition, equipment and spare parts to provide operational support for deployed naval or combat forces operating far from home on the high seas for longer periods.

Given Australia’s deepening ties with other countries in the region, the vessels are also likely to be used in support of allied forces during joint missions or exercises, including the MSDF.

HMAS Warramunga and JS Inazuma sail in-company during Exercise Nichi Gou Trident in November. | ROYAL AUSTRALIAN NAVY
HMAS Warramunga and JS Inazuma sail in-company during Exercise Nichi Gou Trident in November. | ROYAL AUSTRALIAN NAVY

In fact, defense relations between Tokyo and Canberra are about to get even closer, as the two sides have already agreed “in principle” to a defense pact that will allow their militaries to train in each other’s territories.

Once ratified by legislators in both countries, the Reciprocal Access Agreement will be Japan’s first agreement covering a foreign military presence in its territory since the 1960 Status of Forces Agreement with the United States.

Another indication of the growing deterrence posture against China is Canberra’s signing in November of the Exchange of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information Agreement with its AUKUS partners — the United Kingdom and the United States — as part of efforts by Australia to build at least eight conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines.

The agreement allows the U.K. and U.S. — both of which operate nuclear-powered submarines — to exchange sensitive and classified naval nuclear propulsion information with a third country for the first time.

With its plans to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, which have a much longer range and endurance than conventionally powered diesel-electric submarines, the Australian Navy is sending a signal to Beijing that its intention is to operate far from its waters and play a key role in the new joint deterrence posture led by Washington.

However, it is still unclear when Australia will be able to deploy those submarines, which is why Canberra will be upgrading its six in-service Collins-class conventionally powered submarines.

Under the AUKUS partnership, which has been welcomed by Tokyo, Canberra also aims to bolster joint military capabilities and interoperability with London and Washington, particularly in the fields of cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea systems, all of which are likely to play a key role in case of a conflict with Beijing over Taiwan.

Support for Taiwan

Australia has already indicated its support of U.S. policies on Taiwan, with Defense Minister Peter Dutton telling The Australian newspaper earlier this month that Chinese leaders have been “very clear about their intent to go into Taiwan,” and that Canberra must improve its ability to deter Beijing and be ready to join the U.S. military if it took action.

“It would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the U.S. in an action if the US chose to take that action,” Dutton was quoted as saying.

Dutton’s remarks came after Tokyo highlighted in its latest Defense White Paper the importance of Taiwan’s stability for Japan’s security, while Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told CNN on Sept. 16 that the situation around the island should be monitored with “a sense of crisis.”

“What’s happening in Taiwan is directly linked to Japan,” he said, noting the island sits astride his country’s energy lifeline. “90% of energy that Japan uses is imported through the areas around Taiwan,” he said.

“What could happen in Taiwan could likely be an issue for Japan, and in that case, Japan will have to take the necessary response to that situation,” the minister added, stressing that tensions should be diffused through dialogue, not violence.

The crew of HMAS Stalwart line the ship's upper decks during its commissioning ceremony at Fleet Base West, Rockingham, Australia, on Nov. 13. | ROYAL AUSTRALIAN NAVY
The crew of HMAS Stalwart line the ship’s upper decks during its commissioning ceremony at Fleet Base West, Rockingham, Australia, on Nov. 13. | ROYAL AUSTRALIAN NAVY

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