• AFP-Jiji, Kyodo

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Japan and Australia signed a “landmark” treaty on Thursday to strengthen defense ties, saying the accord would contribute to regional stability, as China expands its military and economic clout.

“This is a landmark agreement that will bring Japan-Australia security cooperation to a new level,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said, signing the agreement during an online meeting with his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison.

While Morrison did not mention Beijing directly in a statement released ahead of the signing, the agreement is seen as another step by the regional allies to signal their concern over China’s military expansion.

Ahead of Thursday’s talks with Kishida, Morrison called the agreement “a statement of two nations’ commitment to work together in meeting the shared strategic security challenges we face and to contribute to a secure and stable Indo-Pacific.”

“This landmark treaty will … for the first time provide a clear framework for enhanced interoperability and cooperation between our two forces,” Morrison said.

The partnership reflects “our shared values, our commitment to democracy and human rights, and our common interests in a free, open and resilient Indo-Pacific,” he added.

The Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) will facilitate faster deployment of Japanese Self-Defense Forces and Australian Defense Force personnel and ease restrictions on the transportation of weapons and supplies for joint training and disaster relief operations.

Australia is the second country with which Japan has concluded such an accord after the United States.

Japan will also seek to reach such a pact with the U.K., with which Japan launched negotiations in October, and France as the two countries have been increasing defense cooperation with Tokyo in response to an increasingly assertive China.

Japan and Australia agreed to start talks on the RAA in 2014 and reached a broad agreement in November 2020, but Japan’s death penalty system had been an obstacle in concluding the deal.

Australia, which has scrapped capital punishment and called for its abolition worldwide, initially asked for its military personnel to be exempted from the death penalty for crimes committed in Japan.

However, with Australia increasingly seeing Beijing as a security threat, the two sides struck a deal. Tokyo and Canberra have agreed each country will retain jurisdiction when dispatching troops for joint missions, but the host country will have jurisdiction if personnel commit crimes while off duty.

The two countries will also launch a joint committee to discuss the details of how to implement the agreement, such as arrangements for extradition of those involved in crimes.

Japan and Australia, along with the United States and India, are part of the “Quad” grouping that has worked to build an alliance in the face of China’s swelling presence across Asia, including its threats to vital international sea lanes.

Ali Wyne, senior analyst at Eurasia Group, said the treaty could enhance Tokyo and Canberra’s ability to carry out joint military exercises in Japan together with the United States. It “goes a considerable way towards concretizing the forms that security cooperation between Japan and Australia could take,” he said.

“China will likely cast it as further evidence that advanced industrial democracies seek to stymie its resurgence, although Beijing’s own conduct in recent years has contributed considerably to its growing diplomatic estrangement from those countries,” Wyne added.

When asked about the treaty at a regular briefing Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said “the Pacific Ocean is vast enough for the common development of countries in the region.”

“State-to-state exchanges and cooperation should be conducive to enhancing mutual understanding and trust among countries in the region and safeguarding regional peace and stability, rather than targeting or undermining the interests of any third party,” he said. “We hope that the Pacific will be an ocean of peace, not a place to make waves.”

Japan’s defense spending has been increasing steadily for a decade, and the country’s draft 2022-23 budget includes a record figure for the military.

The Japanese Defense Ministry says the regional security situation is becoming “increasingly severe at an unprecedented speed,” noting challenges posed by China and North Korea.

Wyne said Thursday’s treaty also underscores the momentum of the Quad, which held its first in-person summit in Washington in September.

Also in September, the United States, the U.K. and Australia announced they had formed a new alliance — AUKUS — under which Australia will acquire nuclear-powered submarines using U.S. technology.

Kishida had been considering a visit to Australia in January to sign the RAA, but abandoned the plan to focus on Japan’s COVID-19 response.

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