Japan and Australia are stepping up defense cooperation

The Japan-Australia Mutual Access Agreement (RAA) was finally signed on 6 January 2022. Under the increasingly serious strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific region, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida described it as a “breakthrough” and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called it a “landmark agreement.”

Author: Kei Koga, NTU

RAA is important for further strategic cooperation between Japan and Australia, and has significant strategic potential for advancing Indo-Pacific mini-partialism.

RAA enables Japan and Australia to increase their power projection capacity. But the treaty will not greatly strengthen their respective military capabilities. Japan and Australia do not have the military resources to maintain long-term foreign deployments. Japan also has additional barriers, such as Article 9 of the post-war constitution, which prohibits it from possessing offensive weapons. By facilitating logistics through RAA, Japan and Australia will focus on bilateral cooperation, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and joint military training exercises in the region.

This logistical process can help maximize the potential for Japan-Australia military cooperation by enhancing operational efficiency. The new agreement creates a strategic advantage for Japan and Australia to enter the southwestern Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and Northeast Asia. Increasing usability and access is vital for timely power transmission, especially in times of regional instability, including events such as the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

Such bilateral defense cooperation has been increasingly integrated since the 2007 Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. In November 2021, Japan enacted the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) 2015 Security Bill, which allows for a limited range of joint defenses to protect Australia’s military assets during joint exercises. This is the first time the SDF has conducted such an operation for a country other than the United States. The Japan-Australia security relationship is often described as a ‘semi-alliance’ – it becomes even more so with the RAA.

RAA has become a model for Japan’s strategic partners while strengthening military cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. This is especially true for the UK. Japan and the United Kingdom already have strong security ties, which have been strengthened since 2013 under the second Shinzo Abe administration. There have been 2 + 2 dialogues between the two countries, ending in 2014 with the Agreement on Information Security and the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement. Japan-UK joint declaration on the agreement and security cooperation in 2017.

These Japan-UK defense agreements are similar to those of Japan-Australia. In fact, Japan and the United Kingdom began bilateral talks in October 2021 for a RAA. In the context of the UK’s ‘Indo-Pacific Tilt’, Japan and the UK aim to conclude the agreement as soon as possible. To this end, the Japan-Australia RAA has become a useful model.

RAA also enables Japan to establish a security connection with AUKUS. Of course, AUKUS’s top priority is to increase Australia’s military capabilities through the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, which significantly increases its power launch. It is highly unlikely that Japan would be interested in acquiring such capabilities because its military capabilities are still politically and constitutionally limited.

Although AUKUS’s focus is primarily on the development of military resources, the frequency of military exchanges – including joint military exercises and training – is likely to increase. If such an opportunity arises, Japan is the strongest candidate to participate in joint defense operations.

AUKUS collaborations on defense capabilities and technology range from cyber capabilities to artificial intelligence to quantum technology – areas that Japan is also interested in.

Japan still faces obstacles in cooperating fully with AUKUS. But starting from a relatively simple access point, such as cybersecurity cooperation, it is possible that Japan could monitor AUKUS meetings through such an ‘AUKUS Plus’ format.

Such possibilities are likely to increase when Japan and Australia renew their joint declarations on security cooperation and align themselves more closely with AUKUS. It also opens up the possibility of linking the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with AUKUS because its agenda overlaps – such as critical and emerging technologies and cybersecurity.

These defense networks are useful for US allies to prevent strategic aggression when US military commitment to the Indo-Pacific is seen as weak, as the Ukraine crisis currently indicates.

The goal of such defense cooperation is to maintain a strategic balance in the region, and not to impede the development of existing regional security structures, such as the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting. However, regional states may be concerned about the possibility of an arms race in the Indo-Pacific region, as Indonesia and Malaysia did after AUKUS was established in September 2021. To address such concerns, Japan, Australia and other like-minded states must maintain their defenses by making their efforts as transparent as possible to reassure regional states – especially ASEAN members – about the purpose of that emerging structure.

Through RAA, Japan-Australia defense cooperation has taken a small step towards stabilizing the Indo-Pacific strategic environment. But RAA has significant strategic implications for the future of the regional balance of power.

Kei Koga is an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University, School of Social Sciences, Singapore.

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