The Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) between Japan and Australia is a big deal. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is right to call it “a landmark agreement that will take Japan-Australia security cooperation to a new level,” but it’s much more than that. The RAA is one more strand — albeit a big one — in the diversifying and thickening web of security relations that is emerging in the Indo-Pacific region.
The RAA crystallizes the desire of those two governments to transform their security relationship at a time of great and growing uncertainty. Despite that shared ambition, negotiations took seven years. A formidable obstacle were provisions that govern the treatment of Australian troops who might commit crimes, a problem since Japan has the death penalty and Australia does not. The agreement was wrapped up last year and while there were hopes for a high-profile signing ceremony by the two prime ministers, they were squelched by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The RAA is Japan’s second formal defense pact with another country and confirms Australia’s status as its second most important security partner — after the United States, Japan’s only treaty ally. The agreement enables a slew of activities. According to a statement from the Australian Prime Minister’s Office, the RAA “will establish standing arrangements for the ADF and the JSDF to facilitate cooperative activities such as joint exercises and disaster relief operations, including those of greater scale and complexity, while improving the interoperability and capability of the two countries’ forces.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that after the agreement, “We will be completely interoperable between what we can do and how we deploy together.”
Assessing the deal, Peter Jennings, a former Australian defense official who heads the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a Canberra think tank, anticipates an expansion of practical military cooperation. He envisions Self-Defense Force personnel in significant numbers exercising and training with Australian and U.S. counterparts in military facilities near Darwin; Japanese F-35s using Australian training ranges to practice missions over land; Australian submarines and warships operating out of Japanese military bases; and the two countries’ special forces working together with Southeast Asian partners. We got a taste of what to expect in November, when the Japanese destroyer Inazuma escorted the Australian frigate Warramunga during a joint exercise, the first time a Japanese vessel protected warships other than those of the United States.
While the RAA got most of the attention, the two leaders laid out an expansive agenda for bilateral cooperation. On hard security, they pledged to deepen and broaden security and defense cooperation and “looked forward to issuing a new Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation to serve as a compass for the two countries’ engagement,” updating the last such declaration, agreed in 2007.
On economic security, an ever-more important component of national security, they “committed to deepening collaboration to address illicit technology transfers, build resilient supply chains and strengthen the protection of critical infrastructure.” They will work together on resource security and developing resilient critical minerals supply chains. They will also cooperate on cyber and critical technology; on research and development of critical technologies such as AI and quantum; the application of international law and agreed norms in cyberspace; and on international standard setting.
As important as what the RAA allows or enables the two countries to do together is the foundation it lays for future work. The deal signals to the U.S. its allies’ determination to work together for regional security. ASPI’s Jennings noted the two countries’ shared interest in “keep(ing) the U.S. engaged in the Indo-Pacific. The more we can shape an aligned diplomatic and security approach, the more likely it is that the U.S. will stay engaged.”
Japanese officials reportedly hope to use the RAA as a model for defense cooperation agreements with other countries, European ones in particular, to expand the security network in the Indo-Pacific. This will build on defense relationships that Tokyo has established with countries in the region. Last September, Japan agreed to provide defense equipment to Vietnam, while in November, officials from the two countries signed a cybersecurity pact. And in June of last year, defense ministers in Tokyo and Manila agreed to strengthen their cooperation; then, too, Japan offered military equipment, in that case reconnaissance aircraft.
For me, the key point is the accelerating evolution of regional security architecture. The RAA is the latest in a series of agreements that looks to transform Indo-Pacific security. Morrison agrees, noting that the RAA builds on a series of pacts, among them the AUKUS trilateral security agreement between the U.K., the U.S. and Australia; the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that includes Australia, Japan, India and the U.S.; and bilateral security deals that Canberra has concluded with New Delhi and Seoul.
Security today is an expansive concept, and there is growing attention on its economic dimensions. Strategists pay as much attention to agreements that create shared economic spaces since they have outsize effects on national priorities and orientation. The provision of a market can be as influential as a security guarantee.
That’s why the most troubling weakness in this emerging architecture is the U.S. refusal to join its economic components. The U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and its refusal to reconsider membership in its successor, The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, leaves the world’s largest economy on the sidelines as other governments write the rules for regional economic engagement. That absence assumed new significance as CPTPP members consider new applicants for the group and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement that went into effect Jan. 1.
The Biden administration has said that it wants to develop an economic framework that goes beyond the CPTPP that “could be even more robust in some ways than the traditional free trade agreement.” This “flexible and inclusive” deal will reportedly involve trade facilitation, standards for the digital economy and technology, supply chain resiliency, decarbonization and clean energy, infrastructure, worker standards and other areas of shared interest. Much rides on the final contours of that framework but I have to ask: Why reinvent the wheel?
A second big problem is organizational. How can governments in Tokyo, Canberra and Washington (along with like-minded partners) integrate the various initiatives — bilateral, trilateral and mini- or multilateral — to ensure that they work toward the same objectives and aren’t duplicating or undermining each other. There is news of yet another U.S.-Japan initiative to control high-tech exports, which is different from existing trade controls and should be coordinated with European partners. There is also a need for efficiency as the number of institutions grows. One rationale for the RAA was setting up a framework so that security officials wouldn’t have to negotiate details every time the two countries wanted to hold an exercise. There has to be coordination of the many efforts and this next, vital step has the potential to create a new regional security architecture.
There is a third problem: the response of countries that think they are the targets of this new cooperation. No discussion of evolving regional security architecture would be complete without mention of the burgeoning relationship between China and Russia. Bilateral security ties between those two giants have become more robust in recent years, with the two countries holding large-scale military drills together, naval maneuvers in the Sea of Japan and joint patrols by strategic bombers in Northeast Asia. Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have declared that the relationship between Moscow and Beijing has surpassed the level of a military-political alliance.
While the two governments are both revisionist and unhappy about the international status quo, and very capable of playing the spoiler in key negotiations, they remain wary of entangling commitments. Air Marshal (retired) John Harvey of the Australian Air Force compared the RAA with the enhanced China-Russia relationship and concluded that “the former is based on shared values, enduring shared strategic interests and high levels of trust between the two countries whereas the latter is based on current shared strategic interests only and is likely to last only as long as those interests align.”
He’s right. But it will be interesting to see if regional developments result in a more enduring alignment of interests. That is no reason to slow the emergence of new regional architecture, however. After all, it has been the threat that those countries posed in the first place that has spurred this evolution.
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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