Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has confirmed that he will be visiting Tokyo this week for annual talks with his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe. The major focus of the trip will be bolstering regional security, as the two countries prepare to seal a defence agreement that will strengthen military ties amid ongoing regional tensions- particularly China’s aggressive maritime activity and the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. According to the ABC, Tokyo wanted the potentially wide-ranging arrangements formalised in 2016. The agreement would include establishing RAAF joint exercises in Japan and pave the way for Japan to conduct training exercises from Australia. It would also work to facilitate the transportation of ammunition and military equipment, as well as the sharing of information between the two nations.
Turnbull stated that the need for Australia and Japan to strengthen their security ties was more important than ever given the current “period of strategic uncertainty.” “This will be my first international engagement of the year and it reflects the importance of the bilateral relationship, particularly at a time when the region faces considerable challenges,” he said and particularly drew attention to diffusing the threat posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear program. “Japan is at the frontline of the North Korea nuclear threat” and “the international community, and particularly partners in Asia, must work together to maximise pressure on North Korea and effectively implement UN Security Council sanctions against the regime” Turnbull noted.
While it remained unmentioned by Turnbull in his announcement of the trip, the Financial Review reports that China will also feature in the talks. As Peter Jennings from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute put it, “neither [Australia or Japan] wants to see China as a threat, but there’s undeniable concern about Chinese behaviour and I think that’s leading to the two countries getting closer.” For this reason, some have said that the shape of the agreement isn’t enough. Lowy Institute director of international security, Euan Graham, commented that “it should be more ambitious,” including greater collaboration with regards to defence technology. Dr. Graham also noted that the Australian-Japanese relationship needed to be the most “load-bearing” in the region, especially if the quadrilateral security dialogue, which also includes India and the United States, is to be effective.
Disputes involving island and maritime claims have been longstanding in the South and East China Seas, but China’s increasing military presence has been a point of recent concern. Australia has thus far sought to employ diplomatic channels and forums as its primary means of pressuring China to end its current program of island-building in the South China Sea and perceived maritime assertiveness. The same is true of Japan, which has been outspoken against China’s actions in the South China Sea, but has also been attempting to manage its longstanding territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. The issue flared up again last week, as Japan protested the presence of Chinese ships near the islands.
Shinzo Abe’s “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy,” a bid to hedge against China’s maritime advances and strengthen deterrence against North Korea, will see Tokyo expanding its security cooperation network further and hopes to reach a similar agreement with Britain by the end of 2018. The challenge for both Australia and Japan with the agreement moving forward will be managing to strike a balance between effectively addressing current regional security issues while not exacerbating existing tensions.