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NIAS China Reader
Japan-Australia's Reciprocal Access Agreement

  Femy Francis

What happened?
On 08 August, Japan's Foreign Ministry announced that Japan-Australia's Reciprocal Access Agreement is set to kickstart on 13 August 2023. The ministry stated: "On 08 August 2023, diplomatic notes for the entry into force of the 'Agreement between Japan and Australia on Facilitation of Mutual Access and Cooperation between the Self-Defense Forces of Japan and the Australian Defense Force ('Japan-Australia Reciprocal Access Agreement', or 'Japan-Australia RAA')' (signed on 06 January 2022) were exchanged in Tokyo and Canberra. Following this exchange, this agreement will enter into force on 13 August 2023." Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi expressed that the initiative would help strengthen cooperation between the two countries. Post the agreement, Australia is only the second country whose armed forces would be allowed in Japan after the US. 

The agreement was framed on 06 January 2022, signed by Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison. RAA aimed at facilitating defence cooperation between. In addition to defence cooperation, the agreement removes restrictions and  provides easy access to the transportation of weaponry and other supplies to conduct joint exploration and inter-operability, from military to disaster management initiatives. PM Fumio Kishida called it a: "Landmark agreement that will bring Japan-Australia security cooperation to a new level." At the same time, Scott Morrison stressed that this: "opens a new chapter for advanced defense and security cooperation." The agreement was mooted in 2014, and a broad agreement was reached by 2020 over RAA, after which a lull was observed owing to the issue of Japan's death penalty policy law as Australia stands against capital punishment. To address this, an appendix in the agreement states that Australia will be allowed to refuse the transfer of accused soldiers to Japan.

What is the background?
First, strategic urgency against China's expansion. Beijing's aggressive imposition hindering the status quo in the region developed concerns amongst regional and international players. Beijing's frequent infringement on the Senkaku Islands and disregard for the contiguous waters near the island aggravated the concerns. China has been continuously imposing its sovereignty in the South China Sea. Its maritime claims have been violently asserted, and it has consistently sent its vessels to patrol and trespass into the contentious area. Australia has continuously complained of "economic coercion" owing to various trade disputes and feels it is at the receiving end of the coercion. The belligerent Chinese expansion is a prominent reason for the agreement, as the two countries do not plan to overcome China but want to maintain order and rule in the region. 

Second, bilateral cooperation strengthening 'minilateralism.' The cooperation between Canberra and Tokyo benefits them and supports minilateral organizations like Quad. Reinforcing bilateral ties between two individual members would make the Quad and the larger alliances stronger. Stronger cooperation would increase their influence in the regions and provide them with a stronger front to deter Chinese aggression.

Third, limiting reliance on the US. The cooperation aims to look beyond the US-led regional alliance. For years the US has navigated through Asian geopolitics by influencing like-minded regional actors. It used these regional players to contest and deter countries like Russia and China. Establishing an alternative security collaboration provides leverage for Canberra and Tokyo to negotiate with Washington and Beijing.

Fourth, mutual energy cooperation. With the Ukraine war, the world is facing an energy supply crisis. Japan's energy imports are hit due to regional tensions and the contentious South China Sea. Australia is looking to find alternative buyers other than China for coal and gas, to distribute export dependence beyond one country. Tokyo is one of the vital energy trading partners, with Canberra fulfilling one-third of its total energy requirements. The bilateral cooperation further aids in fulfilling the energy demand, benefiting both countries.

What does it mean?
First, the Reciprocal Access Agreement is a much-needed cooperation between the two countries. After years of passive bureaucratic process and political hurdles, the RAA stands as a constructive step towards growing relations that would play a vital role in shaping Indo-Pacific geopolitics. 

Second, establishing bilateral cooperation not mitigated by the US shows the changing dynamics of foreign policy within the region. There is a shift towards prioritizing national interest by not placing their security decision-making and interest in the hands of the US. 

Third, the agreement indicates to China and other actors that Canberra and Tokyo are willing to work with each other with defense and strategic aid when needed, establishing a stronger front supported by mutual strategic urgency and mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation.

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