Japan and Australia ink Defence Pact with Eye on China
Prof Rajaram Panda

Though the QUAD and AUKUS had received wide media attention in India, with each analysis applauding the merit of these initiatives, another significant development that took place in the past week has somewhat received less attention. The import of this is no less significant as the earlier initiatives of QUAD and AUKUS that sprang as a response to China’s belligerence in the Indo-Pacific region. The issue mentioned here is that two important stakeholders in the region committed to uphold democratic values and working towards securing peace and stability in the region, Japan and Australia, inked a defence pact as concerns over China becomes too significant to ignore.[1]

This “landmark” defence agreement allows closer cooperation between the militaries of Japan and Australia, which send a clear message to China that its growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region is not acceptable and shall be countered with force if necessary. On 6 January, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met in a virtual summit and signed the Reciprocal Access Agreement (Australia-Japan RAA), the first such defence pact signed by Japan with any country other than the US.

The agreement was not one suddenly done; considerable spadework went behind this because of Japan’s legal constraints. Both had been negotiating this since 2014 and only reached a basic agreement on it in 2020.[2] Finally a way out was worked out that broke down legal barriers to allow the troops of one country to enter the other for training and other purposes. The pact would allow both parties to expand practical military cooperation including access to each other's military facilities, secure port access, landing rights, logistic support, security arrangements and legal regimes.[3] The RAA will also facilitate faster deployment of Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and Australian Defence Force personnel and ease restrictions on the transportation of weapons and supplies for joint training and disaster relief operations.[4]

It may be mentioned that besides Japan and Australia having a special strategic partnership and the defence pact stems from this, the economic component in the relationship remains robust for the past five decades. In the 1970s when Australia discovered enormous amount of raw materials, Japan provided a ready market to fuel its economic growth by imports of critical resources. This phase was temporarily interrupted when Japanese economy slowed down and Chinese economic growth moved into a high trajectory. During this phase, China emerged as the main market for Australian raw materials. This honeymoon period was stressed when China started being assertive on regional issues and Australia raised the question of unfair trade practices with China. This change created a new situation which led Japan and Australia towards refocussing their bilateral ties to cope with China challenge.

The underlying strength behind Japan-Australia relationship is that both share democratic values committed to rule of law, human rights, free trade and a free and open Indo-Pacific. Chinese policy rejects most of them. Instead it tries to impose its own rules on others even if those violate global norms. Though China was not mentioned, its significance at the signing was all but visible. What indeed transpired from this pact is that both wanted to increase deterrence in view of the deteriorating security environment. Morrison appropriately called the pact a “pivotal moment” in their security relationship. Strategic analysts in Australia did not miss the import of the pact and saw it as recognition of the importance of defence partnership to deter an increasingly assertive China.

The pact was also a demonstration of Japan breaking away from its post-war constitutional constraints on the use of military force. Though Article 9 of the Constitution outlawed war as a means to settle international disputes and remains intact, most of the spirit behind its enshrinement has been incrementally diluted as the process of amendment is too complex. Besides the territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku islands, Japan is aware of the growing concern of possible Chinese move on Taiwan that could precipitate a regional conflagration. One should, therefore, read the latest Japan-Australia pact as another step in building on the strategic dialogue started with Quad that includes Japan, Australia, the US and India. Though two Quad members – India and Australia – are not members of the AUKUS agreement that Australia signed in September 2011 with the US and Britain, neither has overtly criticised on their exclusion prior to the signing in view of the looming threat emanating from China. Both the US and Britain have pledged to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines. The deal upset China, which said AUKUS “seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts”.

Having inked the Australia-Japan RAA, each side now shall have to complete domestic procedures necessary to give effect to the pact. It will be followed by a new Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation at a later date to provide more detailed guidelines for the future cooperation. The joint statement said that the new agreement would facilitate joint military activities and exercises “including those of greater scale and complexity, while improving the interoperability and capability of the two countries’ forces”.[5]

What does the pact’s impact on China mean? No doubt it sends an important message to Beijing that Japan and Australia are now working closely together to secure a safe regional environment, deter threats and respond to those threats if necessary. Indeed, there has been a greater need for more coalition and more strong ties and this necessity has now been recognised by the stakeholders.

The situation in the South China Sea remains as a serious concern as well. China has been disdainfully disrespecting the UN Convention on the Law of the Se (UNCLOS) that prescribes the guidelines on the rights and freedom of navigation in global commons. China’s unlawful maritime claims and activities that are inconsistent with UNCLOS have come under flak by the rest of Asia. When the Philippines secured a verdict in its favour from the Hague tribunal in 2016 which adjudicated that its decision is final and legally binding on the parties to the South China Sea dispute and that China’s claims are without any basis, China rejected the verdict with disdain being aware that the tribunal lacks enforcing authority. China’s unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force is indeed a worry and the Japan-Australia defence pact needs also to be seen from this perspective.

The spirit of the Japan-Australia defence pact is akin to that of Quad and the AUKUS, both to which China views critically. These two arrangements however are geographically and economically dispersed. This makes the Japan-Australia defence pact special as one-to-one cooperation between the two countries on issues of regional concerns provides greater heft.

With specifics agreed upon, one could expect hereafter expansion of practical military cooperation between Japanese SDF and Australian defence forces. This would mean Japan’s SDF personnel exercising and training in significant number with their Australian counterparts and the US marines out of Darwin.[6]

As expected, Beijing reacted harshly, with its foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin saying that any cooperation between two or more countries must aim to safeguard regional peace and stability but MUST not target or undermine the interests of any third party. Wang remarked: "We hope that the Pacific will be an ocean of peace, not a place to make waves".[7]

Kishida-Morrison meeting that lasted over 100 minutes also shared concerns about human rights abuses against Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, far-western China as well as Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Both leaders also condemned North Korea’s on-going development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Japan is also pondering over the idea of reaching out for similar pacts with Britain and France. Negotiations have already started with Britain last October. Like Japan, Australia and the rest of Asia, Britain and France are too concerned over China’s increasingly assertive stance on regional issues.

Australian strategic analyst Peter Jennings rightly observes that by choosing self-help over alliance free riding, both Japan and Australia are well-positioned to shape an aligned diplomatic and security approach and this shall motivate the US to stay engaged. If America’s isolationist mood that started with Trump deepens as many fear, Jennings argues, Japan-Australia relationship shall become the linchpin of security against authoritarianism. There are other like-minded nations in the region such as India, Vietnam, South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines sharing common viewpoints with Japan and Australia and they could come together to form a strong bulwark against China’s unilateral position on many regional issues. Policy makers in Beijing must not overlook such possibilities. Cooperation and dialogue with the spirit of concession and accommodation are always a preferred option than confrontation.

Endnotes :

[1] “Australia, Japan sign defense pact as China concerns looms”, The Asahi Shimbun, 6 January 2022, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14516611
[2] “Japan-Australia Leaders’ Meeting Joint Statement”, 17 November 2020, https://www.pm.gov.au/media/japan-australia-leaders-meeting-joint-statement#:~:text=The%20Prime%20Ministers%20of%20Japan%20and%20Australia%20reaffirmed,Indo-Pacific%20region%20and
[3] “Japan, Australia sign defense pact seen as response to China”, 6 January 2022, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/news/2022/01/mil-220106-rfa01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3222%2eon0ao069c5%2e2zhp
[4] “Japan, Australia sign defense cooperation pact amid China's rise”, 6 January 2022, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2022/01/af5f643b2cf3-japan-australia-to-sign-defense-cooperation-pact-amid-chinas-rise.html?phrase=election&words=
[6]Peter Jennings, “Deeper Australia–Japan defence ties send strong message to China”, 5 January 2022, https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/deeper-australia-japan-defence-ties-send-strong-message-to-china/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Weekly%20The%20Strategist&utm_content=Weekly%20T
[7]Ibid.“Japan, Australia sign defense cooperation pact amid China's rise”, n.4.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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