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In this virtual era, symbols have assumed greater significance. Last week’s visit to Japan by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was very symbolic and therefore a very big deal. Morrison was the first foreign leader to visit the country since Yoshihide Suga became prime minister, a meeting that took on even more importance and signaled real purpose at a time of COVID-19, with all the associated risks and inconvenience. The interest is mutual: Morrison was the first foreign leader Suga called after succeeding Shinzo Abe as prime minister.

Chats and photos are the fluff of diplomacy, but the two men also put meat on the bones of the bilateral relationship by agreeing on a reciprocal access agreement, a legal framework that allows the two countries’ militaries to visit for training and joint military operations. It is only the second such arrangement that Tokyo has concluded with another government. The other is the Status of Forces Agreement signed in 1960 with the United States, Japan’s treaty ally.

The reciprocal access agreement is another milestone in the partnership that Tokyo and Canberra have been building, a project that has been underway for more than three decades. It is a remarkable development for a relationship once freighted with bitter memories from World War II. A secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific demands that Japan and Australia work together in a wide variety of endeavors, fashioning another pillar of the regional order.

Their partnership was not a given. A 1991 analysis summarized the attitude of “the average informed Australian” toward relations with Japan in three words: awe, apprehension and anticipation. In a 1998 survey of Australian opinion conducted for Japan’s Foreign Ministry, 30% of Australians thought of Japan as an enemy, while 35% remembered the war but didn’t worry.

Those views did not block military cooperation. The two militaries worked together in international peacekeeping operations in Cambodia in 1992 and in Timor-Leste in 2000; they coordinated to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami in December 2004 along with reconstruction assistance in Iraq during 2005-06. Australia made invaluable contributions after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, dispatching all three of its operational C-17 transport aircraft and transporting search and rescue units, humanitarian assistance supplies, and even units from the Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces.

Those discrete projects assumed new form, vigor and relevance after the two governments produced their March 2007 joint declaration on security cooperation, a political framework for sustained and more extensive engagement. After that agreement, the two governments had frequent bilateral summit meetings, foreign and defense ministerial consultations, and agreed to an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement in 2010, an information security agreement in 2012 and an equipment sharing pact two years after that. In 2012, Tokyo and Canberra articulated “common vision and objectives” that broadened and deepened security cooperation. In 2012, Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith described Japan as “Australia’s closest friend and (Australia’s) strongest supporter in Asia.” In turn, Japan has reciprocated. Since 2010, the annual Defense White Paper identified Australia as its top security partner.

Legal and bureaucratic progress facilitated joint training and exercises, both bilateral and trilateral, the latter with the two countries’ common ally, the United States. Cooperation has expanded to include India in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue; in addition to ministerial-level meetings, the four countries held their first four-way joint military exercises in more than a decade earlier this month.

The process has not been friction free. The reciprocal access agreement discussed during last week’s visit was six years in the making and final details remain to be worked out. The two countries are also believed to be working on a deal that would allow Japan’s military to protect Australian military assets.

The joint statement released after the two prime ministers met affirmed the importance of “bilateral and multilateral cooperative activities in the Indo-Pacific region, including maritime activities in the South China Sea, to maintain a free, open, secure, inclusive and prosperous region.” Morrison highlighted that “Japan is a very special relationship with Australia … a strategic one.”

This evolution has prompted hand wringing in some quarters. For some analysts, the two countries’ drive to cooperate reflects distrust of or lack of faith in the United States: They are hedging against Washington’s unreliability. Suga and Morrison acknowledged that U.S. policy hangs over their actions; their joint statement “welcomed the continued commitment of the U.S. to this region and stressed the importance of close cooperation with the U.S. to contribute to the peace and stability of the region.”

References to “hedging” raise the hair on the back of my neck. The word is used as a curse or condemnation. It is more accurate to think of hedging as a prudential measure to account for uncertainty. In this case, diversifying security relations makes sense regardless of what a U.S. administration does. Excessive reliance on any security partner is risky and ill serves both countries. The junior partner risks being seen as dependent and lacking autonomy. The senior partner is imbued with power over the ally and could take it for granted.

Diversification shows a commitment to autonomy and regional security broadly conceived. Expanding ties gives Japan a stake in other countries, creates options and helps knit a thicker weave of security relations throughout the region. This logic drives Tokyo’s efforts to pursue stronger security cooperation with Australia and India, along with the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia. Suga visited the latter two countries last month on his first overseas trip as prime minister, and enhanced defense cooperation was a priority in both sets of discussions.

Another party is unhappy with these developments: China. Global Times, a nationalist tabloid published in Beijing, echoed the government line, charging that intensified cooperation between Tokyo and Canberra is aimed at China. An editorial asserted that the new agreement “accelerates the confrontational atmosphere in the Asia-Pacific region” and warned that the two countries “will surely pay a corresponding price if China’s national interests are infringed upon and its security is threatened.” Beijing has condemned the Quad as a “mini-NATO” that seeks to contain it.

While both Suga and Morrison reject claims that their cooperation targets China, both countries’ defense ministries identify Beijing as a principle cause of regional instability and call for enhanced capabilities to keep the peace. The two leaders’ joint statement notes “serious concerns” about “coercive or unilateral attempts to change the status quo” that “increase tensions in the region.” From my vantage point — and I am not alone — the particulars in the statement point to one country, even if the two leaders don’t want to say its name out loud. Dealing with it requires more than symbolic efforts. They are underway.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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