Australia is taking the next step towards building a coalition
of “like-minded” democracies pushing back against what they view as Beijing’s increasing expansionism in the Indo-Pacific — even as the list of trade reprisals against it grows.
As part of the campaign, Prime Minister Scott Morrison met his Japanese counterpart Yoshihide Suga in Tokyo on Tuesday to sign what he called a “landmark” defense deal. The meeting came just weeks after foreign ministers of the Quad alliance, which also includes the US and India, held discussions in the Japanese capital.
Morrison and Suga signed a reciprocal security access agreement, which Kyodo News of Japan said would set a legal framework for the military of each nation to stay in the other’s country for work such as joint exercises and humanitarian missions.
“The agreement firmly underpins the determination of both Japan and Australia to contribute to the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region,” Suga said at a news conference with Morrison in Tokyo.
The closer security arrangement is a bid to mitigate the risks of a more adventurous China, said John Blaxland, a former intelligence officer who’s now a professor at the Australian National University. “There is a clear overlap of interests when it comes to managing maritime security, but Australia will still be mindful it may be seen as leading attempts to gang up against Beijing.”
The visit was the first summit for Suga since becoming prime minister last month but comes at a price for Morrison since pandemic protocols mean he will need to self-isolate for two weeks on his return. “Australia and Japan are Indo-Pacific nations, but more than that, we share a very unique view on the Indo-Pacific,” Morrison said.
The renewed impetus of the Quad since 2017, when it was revived in a bid to create a buffer against Beijing, is a symbol that democracies are willing to become “unprecedentedly united in their stance to contain China — it’s of the utmost concern” to Beijing, said Yoshikazu Kato, an adjunct professor at the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong.
In recent years, Australia has ramped up diplomatic lobbying to strengthen alliances with other democracies, a strategy that paid off earlier this month when it was invited for the
first time by India to participate in the Malabar naval exercises along with other Quad members.
Suga must tread a delicate line as Japan’s only formal security ally, the US, clashes with China — Japan’s biggest trading partner — over everything from Taiwan to trade and data security. Still, Australia’s move to take a leading role in the Quad, along with other multilateral groupings such as the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance, may lead to further punishment from Beijing that could exacerbate its reputation as China’s new whipping boy.
While tensions had been growing for years, Australia tipped its relationship with its largest trading partner to a new nadir in April by leading
international calls for independent investigators to enter Wuhan to probe the origin of the coronavirus.