PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – While Yoshihide Suga conducted his first overseas trip as prime minister, another important development in Japanese foreign policy took place this week in Tokyo.
Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi and his Australian counterpart, Linda Reynolds, forged a historic joint statement on advancing defense cooperation between the two democracies — an agreement that carries more significance than perhaps the media will capture.
The reasons are threefold. First, it sends out a strategic message — both to other partners as well as potential adversaries. Second, it’s an indication of evolving expectations in the Japanese and Australian governments. Third, it delivers a road map for officials to guide them toward the initiatives they need to pursue in the near term.
In other words, the joint statement gives an indication of where the two governments are steering their alignment for the next few years and highlights just how far Japan and Australia have come in their defense relationship.
For Japan, it provides a standard for which other potential security partners like the United Kingdom, Canada and the Philippines can follow, and it also showcases the maturation of Japan’s independent defense strategies.
Meanwhile, the statement reaffirmed Australia’s commitment to serving as an active and meaningful partner in defending rules-based international order. In addition to these broad points, there were five key takeaways especially worth noting:
1. The two partners are stepping up their China game.
Although there was no specific mention of the elephant in the room, there were plenty of key terms and phrases pointing to the “country that shall not be named.”
For example, a section mentioned that Australia and Japan “reinforced their strong opposition to any destabilising or coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions in the East China Sea.” As I recently described in The Japan Times, such actions precisely characterize China’s Senkaku Islands-related activity.
The joint statement also mentions South China Sea issues, namely the “continued militarization of disputed features, dangerous or coercive use of coast guard vessels and ‘maritime militia,’ and efforts to disrupt other countries’ resource exploitation activities.”
Those all unmistakably refer to China.
None of this is surprising from the Japan side, because the country’s competition with China has been brewing for years now.
But it’s a big deal from the Australian side because it shows an increasingly higher level of resolve in pointing out China’s activities as the source of the Japan-Australia security mandate.
For Japan, the biggest concern in the relationship with Australia is the country’s position toward China and willingness to accept increasingly strong language like this serves as an important signal to Tokyo.
While this is not too far a departure from other Australian statements made in recent years, a political-level joint statement like this would have seemed inconceivable just a decade ago under the Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard administrations.
2. Japan is ready to use the Self-Defense Forces to protect Australian assets.
The second takeaway is buried in the joint statement but relates to a key declaration that Japan is seeking to allow its Self-Defense Forces to protect Australia’s military assets, such as ships and aircraft.
This is a relatively new authority that was added to the SDF under Japan’s 2015 peace and security legislation.
It should be noted that the level of protection Japan can offer is limited, but the decision is still epoch-making. It will not mean much for near-term operations involving the two countries, but Tokyo’s decision is important because it opens up so much more for the future.
The drafters of the 2015 peace and security legislation embedded authorities throughout the new laws that could apply to partner militaries other than the United States.
Few paid attention to those details at the time, but they apply to collective self-defense, logistics support, search and rescue, and other aspects of military cooperation.
The fact that Japan is looking to apply this with Australia means that it is ready to open the door to those other “Easter egg” authorities spread throughout the legislation. It would be an important precedent that will introduce other areas of cooperation between Australia and Japan in the future.
3. The governments are still trying to get a reciprocal access agreement across the goal line.
Tokyo and Canberra are also looking to conduct more joint military exercises together — and to do that, they need to sign what is called a reciprocal access agreement. It would set legal foundations for the Australian military to operate in and around Japan, and vice versa.
After reports that Australian and Japanese negotiators had largely come to an agreement back in June, this joint statement indicated that they still are pushing to get this signed and ratified.
While challenges may exist on either side, the ones from Japan are obvious: A change in administration has forced a reordering of political priorities as the new prime minister finds his feet.
The reciprocal access agreement, although a long-negotiated and important fixture in the burgeoning Australia-Japan defense relationship, is going to receive scrutiny when it hits the Diet floor. Suga will be cautious about when he wants to introduce it to the Diet, especially with the requirement to call a Lower House election looming.
The joint statement serves as a reminder to Japan that this agreement needs to be finalized despite the domestic political challenges.
4. Institutionalizing the security relationship.
Last week in The Japan Times, I discussed the components of a security relationship, one of which being negotiated instruments that institutionalize the partnership.
The joint statement has a section that called for the placement of an Australian liaison officer within the Ground Self-Defense Force. Although details are still to be hashed out, it is a meaningful move in cementing the relationship between Australia and Japan.
With functions generally limited to coordination and communication, liaison officers are not miracle workers for a security relationship. However, their physical presence alone accomplishes so much more.
These positions offer a test bed for working through issues that could plague interoperability. Something as simple as understanding how to communicate across different information systems may seem mundane, but would otherwise be a showstopper for joint operations.
They also establish long-term, meaningful relationships that pay dividends as these officers and co-workers move up the ranks.
In short, the introduction of liaison officers puts the two countries in a position to test out what an interoperable security relationship will look like for when they decide that they want to collocate a full unit or more.
5. Expanding their scope to the Pacific islands.
While many may question why I privilege this particular takeaway over the content on North Korea or cybercooperation, Australia and Japan’s continued focus on the Pacific islands is absolutely critical.
That is because the two security partners have both the means and interest to provide viable alternatives to China for Pacific island nations.
The world has already witnessed China’s propensity to employ “debt trap diplomacy” to expand its military footprint abroad, and Pacific island nations are vulnerable to this.
Some are already working with China, but others are looking for support in the realm of defense, including Palau, which has clearly opened itself up to deployment of U.S. forces.
The United States, of course, cannot be everywhere, and Japan and Australia seeking ways to expand defense engagement with the Pacific island nations will pay dividends in the region. Whether or not those islands accept Australian and Japanese support is immaterial; the fact that they are presented with an alternative gives them important leverage even if they do decide to continue dealing with China at the negotiating table.
That alone makes the Australia-Japan effort there worthwhile.
Dr. Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.
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