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Verdict still out on Morrison’s whirlwind Tokyo trip

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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison greets Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga prior to the official welcome ceremony at Suga's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, 17 November 2020 (Photo: Eugene Hoshiko/Pool via Reuters).

In Brief

Last week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison became the first foreign leader to be hosted in person by Japan’s new prime minister Yoshihide Suga after his predecessor Shinzo Abe stepped down last September.


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But was the visit worth the risk of travel in the middle of a pandemic?

The most high-profile outcome was the announcement of an ‘in-principle agreement’ on a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) that’s yet to be signed. This will enable Australia and Japan to streamline the stationing of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in Japan and the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in Australia, to facilitate joint military exercises and disaster relief, and to bolster interoperability. It makes the RAA the second such agreement Japan has signed on top of its 1960 Status of Forces Agreement with the United States. The RAA would cement Australia as Japan’s second most important security partner after its alliance with the United States.

Morrison sidestepped questions about the key sticking point holding up the agreement — the potential application of the death penalty against ADF personnel were they to commit capital crimes while stationed in Japan — emphasising only that Australia will meet its ‘international obligations’. It is hoped that the RAA will be finalised upon a reciprocal visit to Australia by Suga in 2021.

On the day of Morrison’s visit, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun ran with the story of Australian troop behaviour in Afghanistan and there has now been wide coverage in Japanese media of the inquiry into Australian war crimes there. These developments will colour Japanese reception of the Australian RAA deal.

There are two big misconceptions about the RAA’s purpose.

First, it is not a stepping stone toward an alliance. It is part of a strategy of institutionalising middle power cooperation in response to Japan and Australia’s shared concerns about the US prioritisation of ‘America First’ under the Trump administration. The RAA is a step forward within a series of agreements — including the 2007 Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation and the 2014 announcement of a Special Strategic Partnership — institutionalising the Australia–Japan security relationship. The focus is on bolstering capabilities and doesn’t entail any formalised commitment to come to each other’s aid in the event of an attack. The ADF’s size and the SDF’s constitutional restrictions mean neither side is well placed to enter into alliance-style obligations with each other.

Second, despite growing Australian and Japanese concern about a number of elements of China’s international behaviour, the media narrative has exaggerated the RAA’s utility as a mechanism to contain them. The RAA is better understood as a demonstration of mutual middle power commitment between US allies aimed at persuading the United States to stay engaged in the region.

Morrison and Suga’s joint statement touched on their shared concern over the situation in the South China Sea, the East China Sea and Hong Kong. Yet there remain differences in Australia and Japan’s respective relationships with China. While Australia’s relations with China have deteriorated under the Turnbull and Morrison governments, Japan’s relations with China have been on the mend since 2017.

As Toshiya Takahashi explains in our lead article this week, Prime Minister Suga typically has shown greater interest in domestic than foreign policy. His ‘government was born of intra-party politics among key factions that supported Abe, meaning he is in no position to challenge Abe’s policy line’. Rather, he’s likely to leave the direction-setting to ‘LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, a pro-China policy leader who played a key role in electing Suga’. The LDP’s China hawks have sought to use the situation in Hong Kong and Xinjiang to cancel Chinese President Xi Jinping’s long-expected visit to Japan, postponed from April due to COVID-19. But so far Nikai has kept the hawks at bay. And this week, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi is flying into Tokyo hot on the heels of Morrison for high-level talks with Prime Minister Suga to lay the groundwork for Xi’s visit.

As Shiro Armstrong notes in our second lead article, ‘Australia and Japan face challenges that require multilateral solutions’. Rather than falling down a China containment rabbit hole, Australia and Japan can leverage their cooperation by ‘mobilising a broader collective effort’ with other middle powers to help manage US–China rivalry, the rise of China and pursue cooperation on shared interests. Most urgently these include the coordination of regional and global efforts aimed at recovery from COVID-19 and climate change mitigation.

On COVID-19, Morrison and Suga hit the right notes in their joint statement. They were right to scrap the idea of an Australia–Japan travel bubble as Japan is now being hit by a large third wave of infections. They noted the need to ‘accelerate the development and equitable access to … safe, effective and affordable vaccines’, the importance of strengthening universal healthcare around the region to ‘increase health emergency preparedness’, and the need to reform the WHO to best ‘prevent and mitigate future pandemics’. The two leaders also committed to cooperate in assisting Pacific island countries respond to the pandemic and to enhance cooperation on infrastructure in Southeast Asia as part of the region’s economic recovery.

On climate change, the two leaders acknowledged Suga’s pledge that Japan will become carbon neutral by 2050, Australia’s Low Emissions Technology Roadmap, and progress on the Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain project with a first shipment to Japan set to be made from Victoria in March. Yet Australia risks being left behind on climate change with no date put on its decarbonisation and big concerns over the greenness of its future hydrogen projects.

As Morrison now spends his two weeks in quarantine at the Lodge, it may be too early to fully judge the success of his Tokyo trip. The promise of the RAA was a positive outcome, but only time will tell if there’ll be follow-through on that as well as on the COVID-19 recovery and climate change mitigation agendas.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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