Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga exchange signed documents during a ceremony at Suga's official residence in Tokyo on November 17, 2020. Photo: AFP / Kiyoshi Ota / Pool

China’s unilateralism and growing belligerence have led many “like-minded” countries to come together to uphold a proactive yet cautious stance toward the Indo-Pacific region, and the Quad 2.0, comprising the US, Australia, Japan and India, has been especially prominent in this regard.

This trend has enabled robust bilateralism to take center stage and lay the groundwork for successful multilateral collaborations. The rising ties among the Quad 2.0 members have come to play a prime role in their foreign-policy overtures, with the latest example being the “in principle” agreement on a long-anticipated defense pact, the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), by “special strategic partners” Australia and Japan. 

Predictably, Chinese state media and experts have perceived the RAA as a prelude to a multilateral mechanism with the core objective of containing China – an “Indo-Pacific NATO” – and therefore detrimental to regional stability.

On November 17, in his first overseas trip since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – and the first meeting with a state head that Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga hosted – the two countries agreed to intensify military cooperation amid rising security threats.

The landmark pact will permit the Australian Defense Force (ADF) and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to operate in each other’s countries, allowing greater interoperability, military-to-military cooperation and multilateral venture of military exercises and understanding.

Although it has been in the works for more than six years, the RAA faced stalled negotiations over a number of topics, with Australia’s reservation over Japan’s death-penalty clauses, meant for any ADF member committing any crime in Japan, being a vital deterrent; this will now be solved on a “case-by-case” module, although the specifications of such a process are yet to be confirmed. 

Furthermore, Australia’s hesitation to sign this deal, which appears to be strengthening an anti-China bilateral pact in the Pacific region, was also a variable. 

Tokyo’s overture to Abe’s legacy 

The thrust of this agreement is on “reciprocity.” For Japan, the RAA is a significant milestone considering that Tokyo has not entered an agreement of a similar nature in more than six decades, since the US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that invited American troops on to Japanese soil.

The RAA will also be the first covenant enabling Japanese troops to operate abroad since the Japan-Djibouti SOFA in 2009.

The agreement thus marks a landmark moment in Japan’s security outlook and signals the commencement of a new and more proactive defense strategy, opening the gates for Japan to invite other middle powers (such as India) to its territory independently of its alliance with the US. 

Although this move could be construed as a “hedging” strategy, the US-Japan alliance is in fact unlikely to waver in the near future. Indeed, rather than a shift away from the US, the RAA is illustrative of a proactive Japanese power looking to solidify its middle-power security connections under its Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision.

It also signals major headway toward former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of moving away from Japan’s age-old postwar constitution (also known as the pacifist constitution), showing Suga’s bold outlook and his determination to follow through with Abe’s doctrine on collective defense and security. 

Additionally, the RAA is significant in the precedent it sets for Japan’s future security trajectory; it will certainly shape Tokyo’s security outlook and framework for deepening defense ties with future partners.

Japan’s political system employs laws, government responses during Diet interpellations, and precedence to formulate policy. The RAA’s rather clandestine nature – as the first pact of its kind with a middle-power ally – implies that it will have considerable influence as a point of reference in the execution of all such future agreements.

In a way, it becomes imperative for Japan and Australia to comprehend carefully the strategic significance of such a framework, both in bilateral and regional spectra.

Although it is important that the RAA purports to be an inclusive, cooperative and open venture that transcends its bilateral nature to engage with multilateral forums like the Quad 2.0, the level of scrutiny involved will result in a long-drawn implementation process.

Nevertheless, it is set to be a consequential move for Japan’s security apparatus and the broader Indo-Pacific region. Such an agreement strengthens the Indo-Pacific undercurrents including the Malabar exercise. 

In fact, the Indo-Pacific region, the South China Sea (SCS) and the East China Sea (ECS) were specifically highlighted in the Australia-Japan joint statement released last Tuesday after Morrison’s visit to Japan. The two leaders pledged to enhance regular bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and scale up their joint maritime exercises in the SCS.

In a significant nod to their shared concerns over Beijing’s unilateralism, both nations invoked their trepidations vis-à-vis Hong Kong.

The joint statement also noted that the RAA is poised to “facilitate cooperative activities, such as joint exercises and disaster relief operations” and cover areas such as “streamlining procedures to facilitate deployment and joint activities.”

In essence, the RAA is now becoming a crucial tool for a Tokyo-Canberra “shared leadership response” to the ever-increasing Chinese adventurism in the region. 

Beijing’s concerns of ‘Indo-Pacific NATO’ 

While the agreement may be between Australia and Japan, Beijing’s state-backed media community have argued that the move has actually been orchestrated by the US as the master of “puppets.” Accordingly, without directly commenting on the RAA, the Chinese Foreign Ministry implored countries to pursue bilateral ties without “targeting a third party.”

It also condemned and rejected the November 17 Australia-Japan joint statement for launching “groundless accusations” and “grossly [interfering] in China’s internal affairs.”

If anything, this indicates that the RAA has the capability not just to bolster bilateral defense relations but also to strengthen the Quad 2.0, as Canberra-Tokyo ties inch closer toward imbibing a stronger regional character.

By committing to ensure a “free, open, inclusive and stable Indo-Pacific,” Australia and Japan are advancing the purpose and legitimacy of the Quad process, while also moving toward a multilateral democratic alliance capable of balancing (or to an extent countering) Chinese adventurism in the region. 

For Australia, the RAA comes at a time when its bilateral relationship with China is at an “all-time low.” Australia’s demands for an inquiry into China’s role in the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in Beijing’s harsh economic retaliation with bans on Australian beef and barley imports.

Australia’s recent inclusion in the Malabar exercise – previously a trilateral naval endeavor among the US, Japan and India – has further ruffled feathers in Beijing.

China now sees Australia as operating on a Cold War mentality. Beijing perceives Canberra’s “mistake” of commenting on Chinese internal matters such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan; accusing China of infiltration; and attempting to manipulate international politics with its Covid-19 investigation calls as blatant violations of international norms. 

China’s fraught relationship with Australia has only amplified amid the latter’s decision to abandon its neutrality over the SCS dispute in response to what it views as Beijing’s newfound aggression. In July, Canberra revised its pre-existing policy position by submitting a Note Verbal to the Commission of the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLSC) that overtly rejected the legal basis of China’s maritime claims in the region.

Moreover, despite Australia’s attempts to reach out and normalize ties with China, their adversarial relationship seems unlikely to change in the immediate future. 

The Taiwan play

To China’s dismay, Australia has also been strengthening its relations with Taiwan by working closely with Taipei on many levels, including agriculture, education, energy, biomedicine, digital health and smart-city infrastructure.

Canberra has been initiating greater cooperation for energy development and biomedicine with Taipei, and enhancing their complementarity with slogans such as “Rediscover Australia, Rediscover Taiwan” in the post-pandemic period. Launched this month, this Australia-Taiwan campaign will enable the two to configure each other in their new geo-strategic calculus. 

Sustained cooperation in trade of such goods as medical supplies, masks and alcohol for sanitizer production could also help Australia and Taiwan reduce their over-dependence on China.

The campaign emphasizes the importance of shared values of democracy, rule of law, human rights and freedom of speech – factors that could boost Australia-Taiwan relations and bring about greater global recognition of Taiwan as an exclusive Indo-Pacific geographical entity.

This could also lead Taiwan to become a point of discussion among the Quad countries – where the RAA could play a major role of a defense umbrella to bring Taiwan into the security calculus of the Indo-Pacific. 

Amid such withering Beijing-Canberra ties, the signing of the RAA is bound to result in a profound disruption in bilateral relations. Considering that China is Australia’s largest trading partner – a relationship critical at a time when the Australian economy has fallen into its first recession in three decades – the extent to which Canberra will be able to balance national economic and security interests remains to be seen. 

Strengthening mini-lateralism

Accounting for mini-lateral arrangements such as the Quad 2.0, the Japan-America-India (JAI) trilateral and Australia-Japan-India (AJI) trilateral, the RAA is symbolic of the fact that Tokyo is ready to step up its security nexus beyond the US and play a more decisive role in the region.

More significantly, the RAA forms an important link in the Australia-Japan relationship as partners in the Pacific – a region that has been at the center of geopolitical discussions since China accelerated its economic and strategic engagement with the region in a quest for regional supremacy.

The RAA will enable Australia and Japan to play a more significant role here, enhancing Tokyo’s stature and Canberra’s Pacific Step-up initiative to ensure a secure and stable region. 

Furthermore, India-Japan and India-Australia ties have lifted the extent of security and defense collaboration lately, with all three countries looking to indigenize arms production while moving away from over-dependence on foreign nations for arms imports.

The official proposition of the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) led by India, Japan and Australia has marked the onset of a fledgling economic “alliance” among the three middle-power countries to limit manufacturing dependence on China.

Additionally, in continuation of the tradition established by this month’s Malabar exercises that included Australia for the first time, Morrison stated that the RAA would lead to more such activities that enhance regional cooperation. 

India has largely shied away from alliance politics by focusing on pointed, strategic alignments instead; unlike Tokyo and Canberra, New Delhi has thus avoided entering a broad, all-encompassing security alliance with the US that would render it undeniably dependent on the superpower for its defense needs.

Now, the upgrading of New Delhi’s ties with Canberra to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) in June with a mutual logistics support arrangement (MSLA), and the ratification of the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with Japan, has laid the foundation for a more profound trilateral synergy among India, Japan and Australia, especially within the AJI’s rubric, with both the MSLA and ACSA having core similarities with the RAA structure. 

Nevertheless, the RAA is thus far agreed upon only in principle, with its implementation contingent upon approval of the Japanese Diet. Irrespective of the challenges the RAA needs to overcome, the strategic imperatives of the agreement for bilateral ties, trilateral groupings, the Quad 2.0 as well as the Indo-Pacific region vis-à-vis China are unmistakably abundant.

The RAA therefore forms a prudent and necessary step for the future security of the region – which must be a critical priority for all Indo-Pacific nations. 

Jagannath Panda

Jagannath Panda is a research fellow and center coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is the series editor for Routledge Studies on Think Asia.