Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his new Japanese counterpart, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, have laid the foundations for an enhanced economic, political and strategic relationship between the two nations, drawing fire from an enraged Beijing.
Australia is a nation set apart from many of its regional neighbours, long struggling to balance the paradigms of strategic independence and strategic dependence, torn between competing economic and security relationships, while being limited by a comparatively small population and industrial base.
Typically, this policy and doctrine pendulum always swung more heavily towards a paradigm of dependence, both in the economic and strategic sense, however the changing nature of domestic and global affairs requires renewed consideration.
This is particularly relevant as at the end of the Cold War, Australia like much of the victorious, US-led "free world" bought into two comforting myths, first the victory of the US meant the "end of history" and the era of great power competition had forever been relegated to the pages of antiquity, and, as China continues to grow, it would shake off authoritarianism and become more liberal.
Japan, unlike Australia, however, has a long, storied history as a great power, only surrendering that position in the aftermath of the Second World War, which saw the nation conquered by the US-led allies and forced to embrace a pacifist strategic doctrine, dependent upon the US for security, while still leveraging its economic and political clout as a great power.
However, far from Francis Fukuyama's promise of the "end of history", the US-led liberal-democratic and capitalist economic, political and strategic order is under siege, driven by mounting waves of civil unrest, the impact of sustained economic stagnation across the West, concerns about climate change and the increasing geostrategic competition between the world’s great powers.
Adding further fuel to the fire is the global and more localised impacts of COVID-19, which range from recognising the impact of vulnerable, global supply chains upon national security as many leading nations, long advocates of 'closer collaboration and economic integration', grasp at the lifeboats of the nation-state to secure their national interests.
Japan in particular, under former prime minister Shinzo Abe and now new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, has sought to re-establish Japan as a traditional great power and, critically, enhance its strategic collaboration and engagement with 'like-minded' regional partners, with Australia front and centre of this push.
Embracing this opportunity, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed an official visit to the region's other great power, to enhance the post-COVID economic and strategic collaboration efforts between the two nations, with an emphasis on capability aggregation and sharing in the Indo-Pacific.
This has seen both nations drawn increasingly close, both through their mutual alliance with the US and increasingly independently, as both nations seek to bounce back from the economic impact of COVID and maintain security and stability across the Indo-Pacific culminating in a two measures, the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) and deepening bilateral relationships.
Increasing allied operational tempo and interoperability
PMs Morrison and Suga said RAA is a major step change in the strategic relationship between the two nations and will serve to enhance the individual and interoperability capabilities of the two defence force's as they continue to step up regional presence operations throughout the Indo-Pacific.
A media statement from Prime Minister Morrison details the RAA and its impacts on the ADF as it continues to expand its regional engagement and presence, particularly expanding the relationship with the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF):
"Australia and Japan have reached in principle agreement on a landmark defence treaty that will further deepen the countries’ strategic and security relationship. The Reciprocal Access Agreement represents a pivotal moment in the history of Japan-Australia ties.
"We share a Special Strategic Partnership and are deeply committed to working together in support of a free, open, inclusive and stable Indo-Pacific. Our partnership is built on shared values and interests, and enduring trust and respect.
"This agreement paves the way for a new chapter of advanced defence cooperation between our two countries. The only other such agreement that Japan has struck with another country is with the United States 60 years ago."
Expanding on this, the statement explains, "It will facilitate greater and more complex practical engagement between the Australian Defence Force and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, and enhance our inter-operability and co-operation. This will also support our joint involvement in broader multilateral exercises.
"It means Australia and Japan will have a clear framework for how our defence forces operate in each other’s countries. From joint military training exercises through to natural disaster and humanitarian support, the RAA establishes streamlined arrangements to support the deployment of defence forces more quickly and with less administration.
"The Australian and Japanese militaries have in recent years increased cooperation and exercise activities. These have enhanced our ability to work together towards our common security objectives in the Indo Pacific region and our military interoperability. In principle agreement on the RAA will only see that grow."
Expanding the bilateral relationship
Expanding on the RAA, the prime ministers' joint statement details a holistic expansion of the bilateral relationship between the two nations, with a specific focus on expanding and enhancing the regional security, political and economic order in the face of mounting traditional and asymmetric peer and near-peer pressure and, most critically, great power competition between the US and People's Republic of China.
The joint statement says:
"The Prime Ministers of Japan and Australia reaffirmed that the Special Strategic Partnership between the two countries is based on shared values, including a commitment to democracy, human rights, free trade and a rules-based order; shared strategic interests in the security, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region and beyond; and deep economic complementarity.
"They renewed their determination to deepen cooperation to promote a free, open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific region where disputes are resolved peacefully and without the threat or use of force or coercion, and where the sovereignty and rights of all states under international law are upheld. In this regard, they welcomed the continued commitment of the United States to this region and stressed the importance of close cooperation with the United States to contribute to the peace and stability of the region."
Expanding on this, the joint statement explains, "The Leaders instructed their respective Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Defence to further strengthen bilateral security and defence cooperation and hold the next Foreign and Defence Ministerial Consultations (2+2) at the earliest convenient time in 2021.
"They welcomed the outcomes of the Foreign and Defence Ministers’ Meetings in Tokyo in October 2020 and the discussions on further developing, broadening and deepening the security and defence relationship. In this context, they reaffirmed the importance of enhancing cooperation between the SDF and the ADF, such as by increasing the complexity and sophistication of bilateral exercises and operations.
"They also reiterated the importance of enhancing regular 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.
"The Leaders decided to coordinate efforts to mitigate the health, social and economic impacts of COVID-19, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, and to accelerate the development and equitable access to diagnostics, therapeutics, and safe, effective and affordable vaccines for COVID-19.
"The Leaders also shared the view that they would work together with partner governments to strengthen health systems, increase health emergency preparedness, and work towards achieving universal health coverage to ensure essential health services are maintained. The Leaders decided to cooperate on WHO reform to ensure it has the authority and capability to prevent and mitigate future pandemics."
Turning their attention to developing and enhancing the economic opportunities and growth in the Indo-Pacific, the two leaders detail: "The Leaders decided to enhance cooperation in south-east Asia, including expanded support for quality infrastructure development in accordance with international standards expressed in the G20 Principles for Quality Infrastructure Investment, such as openness, transparency, economic efficiency in view of lifecycle costs and debt sustainability, which will be an important part of the region’s economic recovery from COVID-19 and support for sustainable development in the Mekong sub region.
"The Leaders concurred to enhance cooperation on health, and welcomed the official announcement of the establishment of the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases.
"The Leaders acknowledged that assuring economic security is becoming increasingly important as a result of digital transformation and ICT innovation as well as the outbreak of COVID-19. They confirmed that a key element of bilateral security cooperation is to promote coordination in the area of economic security, and expressed their desire to seek concrete ways to deepen cooperation in this area including information exchange.
"The Leaders reiterated that the mutual prosperity of both countries depends on secure and reliable supply chains for critical goods and services. They also underlined the need to strengthen cooperation on space and cyber issues, digital and critical technologies and infrastructure including 5G networks and submarine cables, and on resource security including the establishment of open, secure, resilient and efficient supply chains of critical minerals.
"The Leaders underlined the importance of maintaining free and open markets and enhancing the resilience and efficiency of supply chains in the Indo-Pacific region to promote trade and investment. In this regard, they welcomed the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement on 15 November 2020, while reiterating that the RCEP remains open for India. The Leaders confirmed their commitments to expanding a free, fair, inclusive and rules-based trade and investment environment and to keep our markets open in this region and beyond, including through the implementation and expansion of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
"They also expressed their hope to further deepen bilateral economic relations under those agreements and the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement (JAEPA). They stressed the need to work together to reform and strengthen the WTO including rule-making on e-commerce as co-conveners of the Joint Statement Initiative (JSI).
"The Leaders affirmed their strong support for rules-based open trade, based on market principles and in line with their bilateral and international commitments. Such trade builds prosperity and underpins trust and deep links between nations. They further affirmed that trade should never be used as a tool to apply political pressure. To do so undermines trust and prosperity. The Leaders also shared the view that they would work closely to ensure market-oriented conditions and a level playing field to foster a non-discriminatory trade and investment environment."
Finally, the leaders' joint statement explains, "The Leaders concurred to continue close cooperation to ensure secure and reliable energy supply including LNG and to reduce emissions through new and emerging low-emissions technologies and supply chains, including hydrogen, Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) and Carbon Recycling (CR). They welcomed the progress made to date on the Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain project in the state of Victoria in Australia.
"The Leaders concurred to advance hydrogen co-operation to support national and global transitions to a resilient, low emissions economy. In this context, Prime Minister Morrison acknowledged the recent announcement by Prime Minister Suga that by 2050, Japan will aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, that is, to realise a carbon-neutral, decarbonised society. Prime Minister Suga acknowledged that Australia is implementing a Low Emissions Technology Roadmap to reach net zero emissions as soon as possible, and has already reduced emissions by 14 per cent since 2005.
"The Leaders affirmed their commitment to deepening co-operation in agricultural production, particularly to overcome the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Leaders recognised the potential for the two countries to boost agricultural exports into international markets and concurred to explore greater collaboration on regional and global agri-food supply chains."
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation’s approach to our regional partners.