Prime Minister Scott Morrison will head to Tokyo today for his first overseas trip since the coronavirus pandemic began, on a visit highlighting the importance of the Australia-Japan relationship.
The visit comes at a time when Australia-China relations are at a low point and there is uncertainty in the United States over its transition of political leadership.
That unpredictability is bringing Canberra and Tokyo together, with the nations planning to strengthen business and defence ties. But it is unclear whether a long-negotiated key military cooperation agreement will be signed on this trip.
However, the ABC has been told there is broad agreement on the text.
The subject of a travel bubble between Australia and Japan has been complicated by fears of a third wave of coronavirus cases in Japan.
The country had a record number of infections in the past week.
But much of the focus will be on defence and maritime security.
Over the past few years, the defence relationship between Japan and Australia has grown stronger, with bilateral air combat exercises above Japan’s northern island as well as naval exercises with the US in the South China Sea.
You do not have to look hard to see how Australia-Japan ties have improved in the past few months.
Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, picked Morrison for his first call as the country’s new leader, ahead of US President Donald Trump, the leader of Japan’s closest ally.
Last month, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds both visited Tokyo within weeks of one another for meetings with their Japanese counterparts.
As it did in those meetings, China and its increasing assertiveness is certain to dominate private discussions between Suga and Morrison — though it will be a surprise if the leaders mention this by name.
Expect it to be framed by language about the “rules-based order” and the “free and open” or “peaceful and prosperous” Indo-Pacific.
Japan’s 2020 Defence White Paper contained more criticism of China than ever before — particularly over Beijing’s “relentless” unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the region by coercion around the Senkaku Islands.
The islands are controlled by Japan but claimed by China, which has been sending its Coast Guard ships into Japan’s territorial waters.
Australia’s economic challenges with Beijing are growing by the day, with sanctions being placed on many products.
News about the increasing Chinese sanctions is also being reported here in Japan.
Stronger defence ties held up by rules on ADF operating in Japan
In the past few years, Australia and Japan have signed intelligence and defence research-sharing agreements.
But a sticking point in the Japan-Australia defence relationship has been a document known as the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA).
The document sets out what’s required for Australian Defence Force (ADF) troops to legally operate in and around Japan, and the same for Japan’s Self Defence Forces in Australia.
During a speech at the Australian embassy in Tokyo in 2018, Australian National University professor John Blaxland described the RAA as akin to a status of forces agreement.
“It expedites and facilitates rapid and seamless interoperability and ADF elements in Japan, or wherever we might be based, in response to a crisis like the Indian Ocean tsunami or typhoons in the Philippines,” he said.
“[There was the] Fukushima disaster in Japan where Australian C17 [aircraft] flew in equipment but struggled to get it off boarded because of administrative procedures that had not been agreed upon beforehand.”
But talks on the deal have been stalled over the condition of Australian troops being subject to the death penalty in Japan.
The Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement implemented after World War II has been a historical source of tension between Tokyo and Washington DC, so there’s some degree of caution being applied here, according to Carnegie Endowment senior fellow James Schoff.
Schoff is a former senior US Department of Defence East Asia specialist.
“There were plenty of cases where crimes that were committed [by US troops] where suspects were not handed over within ‘X’ number of days — in some cases never handed over,” he said.
“[There was a] ‘We’ll take care of it, don’t you worry kind of thing,’ and that led to real public political dissatisfaction in Japan with the way that is.”
That makes it politically sensitive in Japan, but the ABC understands there is broad agreement on the text of the document, subject to any last-minute legal changes.
It may not be signed today and it’s unclear whether Australian troops will be subject to the death penalty if they are acting outside of their official duties.
Japanese media have reported they will “be tried under Japanese law”.
As the Foreign Minister visited last month, Australian negotiators were locked in discussions for weeks, trying to desperately make progress on the agreement ahead of this planned visit.
Many Australian ministers and prime ministers have come to Japan indicating a deal was close. I n 2019 then defence minister Christopher Pyne toured a Japanese ship , expecting a deal would be signed in the first quarter of that year.
It was not.
So unless the document is signed, it’s something worth keeping in mind.
Future energy also set be a focus of trip
The Prime Minister will also discuss the latest work being done with hydrogen technology, which could one day prove to be an Australian-backed solution to Japan’s energy challenge.
How much of a focus Suga puts on his recent 2050 carbon neutrality pledge will be interesting to see.
Australia exports a substantial amount of coal for electricity generation and steelmaking to Japan — and analysts have warned any reduction could pose a substantial threat to those industries.
The role the incoming US president will play in that dynamic may be crucial.
President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to also make the US carbon neutral by 2050.
According to a readout from Biden’s office, Suga’s call with the US president-elect included a discussion about a “shared commitment” to tackle climate change with Japan.
The readout from Australia’s Prime Minister talked about working on common challenges like “confronting” climate change.
“I think that’s something Australia is going to have to pay attention to, to be aware of,” Donna Weeks, a political science professor at Tokyo’s Musashino University, said.
“Otherwise, it’s going to find itself perhaps a little bit isolated.
“And now is not the time to feel isolated in the region.”
Weeks said the visit should be about more than just China and security.
“I expect that there will be a confirmation of the defence direction of the relationship, but would also be particularly [hopeful] as we approach a post-COVID world, that we look to other ways to expand and broaden the relationship, be it in expanded trade, expanded agricultural reform or tourism.”
- Exclusive – Peter Schweizer: Mitch McConnell’s Deep Financial Ties to China ‘Unprecedented’ in U.S. History
- What is Your China Strategy?
- China and the Children Will Save the Electric Car From Scott Pruitt's EPA
- China's Tech Revolution
- China’s Homegrown Supercomputers
- Why EPA’s U-Turn On Auto Efficiency Rules Gives China The Upper Hand
- National Puppy Day: Don't give your dog these toxic people foods
- China's Antisatellite Missile Test: Why?
- China Aid: President Xi Jinping Views Christian Churches as ‘Severe National Security Threat’
- Schweizer: Media and GOP Refuse to Investigate McConnell and Chao Family Ties to China
Scott Morrison heads to Tokyo as rising China squeezes two nations together have 1307 words, post on www.abc.net.au at November 16, 2020. This is cached page on World News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.