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Op-Ed: Japan and Australia – A ‘special strategic partnership’ going from strength to strength

The Japan-Australia relationship is one that has undergone a profound degree of change over the last decade, and has evolved, with each passing year, in ways that would have seemed inconceivable to many of my predecessors, explains Japanese ambassador to Australia, Takahashi Reiichiro.

The Japan-Australia relationship is one that has undergone a profound degree of change over the last decade, and has evolved, with each passing year, in ways that would have seemed inconceivable to many of my predecessors, explains Japanese ambassador to Australia, Takahashi Reiichiro.

Our strategic partnership was forged by the landmark 2007 Joint Declaration on Security Co-operation. Yet who at the time of the signing of the declaration would have anticipated that just over 10 years later, Japan would be referring to Australia in our 2018 National Defence Program Guidelines as second only to our formal ally the United States in terms of its strategic importance to us?

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Our partnership builds on the decades-long trading ties, people-to-people exchanges and diplomatic co-operation between us in pursuit of a free, open, prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific region.

Our shared interests and democratic values bind us together. We recognise that our future prosperity lies in the Indo-Pacific. We each have respective alliance partnerships with the United States, which anchors the rules-based order in the region. All this has brought the peoples of both our nations together to the point that we recognise one another as “special strategic partners”.

The unique nature of our strategic relationship is remarkable for such culturally diverse nations as ours, but is a perfect example of the type of co-operation necessary to deal with the challenges that lie ahead.

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It will come as no surprise to anyone that the current strategic environment of our region is in a state of flux and that the global power balance appears to be undergoing a period of instability.

Great power competition, a concept that we hoped had been confined to history, has instead made a roaring comeback. In its wake it has upset many of the established norms, most notably the rule of law, that so many of us had thought were immutable.

The Indo-Pacific has long been on a steady path to economic prosperity, but its security environment remains volatile. The economic growth altered the balance of power and brought about a rise in competition for resources and influence amid competing territorial claims.

We have watched with concern the gradual undermining of the rule of law in our region, particularly in the South China Sea. We have witnessed a series of coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo. These are no longer mere aberrations but have steadily become routine.

In the East China Sea, Japan’s territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands remains indisputable based both on historical facts and international law.

However, Chinese government vessels initially began to intrude into Japan's territorial sea surrounding the islands in December 2008. This activity has continued to this day, with the clear intention of violating the sovereignty of Japan and attempting to change the status quo through force.

Another prominent security risk to the region is North Korea. North Korea has not taken any concrete steps towards the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of its WMD program and ballistic missile programs for all ranges. Instead it continues to conduct missile tests in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

It is precisely because of these developments that regional democracies must stand with and support one another. Fortunately, Japan and Australia have been extraordinarily pro-active in this area.

While we continue to co-operate in our diplomacy to advocate for the rule of law, we have also been engaged in forging a stronger defence relationship. It is a force enabler, both for each other and for our mutual alliance partner the United States, and provides a new equilibrium to prevent the further erosion of the rule of law.

Its overall concept was embraced by Japan and Australia over a decade ago, and since then we have been steadily building a framework that brings us closer together.

For example, last year Japan played host to the first bilateral fighter jet exercise conducted by both nations in the form of Exercise Bushido Guardian in Hokkaido and Aomori prefectures.

During that exercise, Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) F-2s and F-15s as well as Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18s improved their tactical fighting capabilities and enhanced mutual understanding of one another’s operating procedures.

Meanwhile, despite the cancellation of the Japan Self-Defense Forces’ Fleet Review as a result of devastating typhoon “Hagibis” that struck Japan at the time of the review, the Royal Australian Navy sent four ships including an air warfare destroyer and a submarine to participate in the review.

Both navies also conducted Exercise Nichi Gou Trident, as well as participating in the Mine Warfare Exercise in Hyuganada together with the US Navy.

Japan also sent its largest contingent of participants to Exercise Talisman Sabre, which included the first ever deployment of Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) vessels to this exercise.

In addition to the presence of JS Ise, the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force’s (JGSDF) newly formed Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade conducted its first ever beach landings in Australia.

Japan has also been a regular participant in Exercise Southern Jackaroo together with Australian and US forces. It was during this exercise that the JGSDF successfully fired two FH-70 howitzers out to a range of 25 kilometres, a first for the JGSDF in Australia.

While joint exercises between Japan and Australia continue to expand almost daily, since 2017 the defence forces of both countries have also engaged in annual extended activities using multiple vessels throughout the Indo-Pacific.

In the case of the JMSDF, this activity is known as the Indo-Pacific Deployment (IPD), while in the case of the Australian Defence Force it is referred to as Exercise Indo-Pacific Endeavour.

The defence forces of Japan and Australia have been able to deepen their ties with militaries throughout the region using these activities, which provide a platform for both countries to maintain and strengthen a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Moreover, at IPD19 in 2019, the combined navies of Japan, France, Australia and the United States conducted the multilateral air-sea Exercise ‘La Perouse’ in the Indian Ocean to the west of the island of Sumatra, thus demonstrating their strong commitment to the region.

Australia has also been an important part of the UN sanctions enforcement regime against North Korea and has sent frigates and patrol aircraft to participate in enforcement activities since April 2018.

As recently as February, RAAF P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft were conducting patrols from Kadena Air Base to prevent any illicit ship-to-ship transfers of material to and from North Korea.

We have concluded defence-related treaties such as the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement and the Agreement concerning the Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology.

We are also conducting negotiations in earnest for our Reciprocal Access Agreement, which promises to take Japan-Australian strategic relations to a new level.

This potential was most recently demonstrated during the disaster relief mission to Australia by two JASDF C-130 Hercules transport aircraft in response to Australia’s Black Summer.

This mission was a first for many reasons, not least of which because it marked the first time Japan’s Self-Defense Force had been involved in responding to wildfires abroad.

It was also Japan’s first disaster relief mission to Australia, and was invaluable in providing lessons for our defence force on working with the ADF in unique conditions and demonstrating how best to co-ordinate disaster relief activities.

Despite the pandemic caused by COVID-19, the governments of Japan and Australia have continued to strongly promote co-operation between the defence forces of both countries.

During their telephone conference held on 7 May, defense ministers Kōno Tarō and Linda Reynolds agreed to share the information, practices and knowledge of their respective defence offices responsible for combating the coronavirus and to continue communication between their departments, all with the aim of bringing the pandemic to an early end.

At present, the defence forces of Japan and Australia share both lessons and details on their respective efforts to halt COVID-19 using meetings principally conducted using virtual technology. In doing so, both sides maintain a constant state of readiness while strengthening and promoting Japan-Australia defence co-operation.

The Pacific islands are also a vital region for the development of the vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, and one to which Australia has actively and earnestly provided support.

At the 8th Pacific Islands Leaders’ Meeting held in 2018 and attended by Australia, Japan declared its deep commitment to the stability and prosperity of this region.

In defence terms, Japan has previously supported the development of the PNG Military Band. However, in the future it plans to offer its assistance in conjunction with Australia and other partner nations to both strengthen and sustainably develop the Pacific islands.

All of this has been made possible through our conversations at all levels of government, including our Annual Leaders’ Talks and the annual 2+2 consultations between our foreign and defence ministers.

In particular, I am pleased to note the good rapport between Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. It was in November 2018 that they laid wreaths at the Darwin War Memorial Cenotaph and held their first Annual Leaders’ Meeting.

Since then they have spoken to each other on a number of occasions, including in the margins of international fora such as the East Asia Summit, APEC and the G20.

We have come a long way together and yet we are only just getting started. Our strategic relationship is one facet of a much broader story, but it has become a key part of our future.

Through co-operation and co-ordination with each other and with our allies and partners, I believe we will succeed in preserving the rules-based order and ultimately prevail without creating any losers.

We are partners in the challenges that lie in front of us in this region, and Australia can be assured that Japan has its back. Together with the United States, and through our mutually beneficial relationship with ASEAN and India, we will be a bastion for democracy, the rule of law, and the peace and prosperity of our region.

Ambassador Takahashi Reiichiro has an extensive diplomatic career, including postings to Japanese embassies across the Indo-Pacific, including the Philippines, India, US and Republic of Korea. 

Takahashi was appointed as Japan's Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Australia in 2018. 

Op-Ed: Japan and Australia – A ‘special strategic partnership’ going from strength to strength
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