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Japan and Australia signed a “landmark” defence agreement on 06 Jan 2022 that allows closer cooperation between their armed forces and stands as a rebuke to China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region. This Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), is the first such defence pact signed by Japan with any country other than the United States.
The agreement follows more than a year of talks between Japan and Australia aimed at breaking down legal barriers to allow the troops of one country to enter the other for training and other purposes.
Termed as a “pivotal moment for Australia and Japan and for the security of our two nations.
The agreement builds on the strategic dialogue known as “the Quad,” which includes Japan, Australia, the United States and India. Australia last year also signed the AUKUS agreement with the United States and Britain, both of which have pledged to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines.
The Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), the defence treaty between Australia and Japan, apart from its strategic significance for Asia and the Indo-Pacific, fortifies trends that are part of the changing security architecture in the region. For one, it marks the move away from a US-centric outlook towards a greater focus on bilateral ties and regional groupings. It is also a sign that Japan is willing to play a more proactive role in the region.
The security order that had emerged after the Second World War in Asia and the Indo-Pacific was marked by the US’s bilateral ties with various players. However, due to the rise of an assertive, belligerent China, now that seems to be changing. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or the Quad, with India, Japan, Australia and the US), the AUKUS, and now the RAA between Japan and Australia, all point towards a more empowered and committed regional strategic network.
This has been enabled, among other factors, by Australia’s willingness to stand up to China on the question of a free and open Indo-Pacific and rules-based global order, despite their deep economic ties.
For Japan, this marks an even greater shift, of a piece with the recent evolution in its outlook and global image. So far, Japan’s only major defence ally had been the US. Japan has a status of forces agreement with the United States, which allows the United States to base warships, fighter jets and thousands of troops in and around Japan as part of an alliance This reticence in taking the lead in the strategic domain was driven by the legacy of the Second World War, and the fact that Japan had been an imperial power, which made many countries in the region wary of it. Yet, recently, both Vietnam and the Philippines have looked to Japan to provide a bulwark against Beijing, signalling a greater acceptance of Japan’s role as a strategic player.
It is appreciated that Japan may look even further for RAA-like agreements with the UK and France as well in near future.
China’s reaction to the Japan – Australia RAA, has been predictable, ranging from the ambivalent to the negative. This agreement underscores the thrust its aggressive stance has provided to other nations/powers to expand their cooperation and build on the momentum created by the Quad.
India, for its part, has done much to expand bilateral, trilateral and regional cooperation in the Indo-Pacific security domain. India already has “2+2” ministerial dialogues with Japan.
India and Australia in Jun 2020 elevated their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership. The Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) with Australia will allow militaries of the two countries to use each other’s bases for repair and replenishment of supplies besides facilitating scaling up of overall defence cooperation. Besides the MLSA, the other pacts signed will provide for bilateral cooperation in areas of cyber and cyber-enabled critical technology, mining and minerals, military technology, vocational education and water resources management
India has already signed similar agreements with the US, France and Singapore.
Considering the dynamics of Indo Pacific, eyes of expansionist China in the South China Sea, Sri Lanka, Maldives and on African ports, India must step up such engagements with other power players in the region.
(Commodore Vijesh Kumar Garg, VSM is Executive Director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. The views expressed are personal.)