The leaders of Japan and Australia recently signed the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) to facilitate bilateral defense and security cooperation. According to the agreement, the two countries will streamline the entry and customs clearance procedures needed to admit each other’s military forces (personnel, equipment, etc.) to enter their territory and carry out operations based on their military facilities.
Australia is the second country after the US to sign such an agreement with Japan, and the inking made the two countries quasi military allies with their defense and security cooperation entering a new stage.
In fact, Japan and Australia have obviously sped up their defense and security cooperation ever since they elevated the bilateral relationship to be “special strategic partnership” in 2014, and the focus of cooperation has shifted from non-traditional security domains such as humanitarian aid to the so-called “major-country competition” and tackling “major-country threats” in a planned and phased manner with targeted actions. In June 2021, the Japanese government officially listed Australia as the second country after the US, whose weapons and equipment can be protected by Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF). During the Japan-Australia joint maritime training off the Japanese coast in November that year, JMSDF’s frigate Inazuma escorted the Australian Navy’s HMAS Warramunga frigate, the first time that the Japanese side took such a measure for a foreign vessel other than America’s. Besides, Tokyo and Canberra also expect to complete the mutual dispatch of military liaison officers within 2022.
Japan and Australia have always served as two anchors of US' attempt to meddle in the Asia-Pacific affairs. Now the US has continued to advance the “Indo-Pacific strategy” and taken the US-Japan-India-Australia “quadrilateral security dialogue” as the core structure for weaving a composite regional network of allies.. This has created a relatively relaxing environment for Japan and Australia to, through maneuvering and coordination, jointly seek strategic independence, defense independence, and a greater say over regional affairs.
With the passing of the New Security Act in 2016, Japan practically broke the limitation of “defense only” imposed by its Pacifist Constitution, after which it has moved faster to forge bilateral and multilateral defense cooperation with America’s allies and partners. Australia, with its favorable location and well-rounded and systematic military resources, stands out as a reliable option that Japan can use to expand its influence southward. According to Japanese media, Tokyo intends to copy what it did with Australia – signing the cooperation agreement – in seeking defense cooperation with other major countries like Britain and France, envisioning for itself a blueprint for achieving a much grander strategic ambition.
For Australia, Japan is also an ideal pivot to help it become more responsive to sensitive regional hotspot issues in the northern direction, enhance its engagement and discourse power in regional affairs, assist in implementing America’s “Indo-Pacific strategy”, and cement its position as a “medium power”.
At this stage, the prospects of Japan-Australia defense and security cooperation are still largely dependent on how America judges the regional security situation and the trend of major-country games, although their own strategic objectives and appeals do play a part. It is also America’s judgment and decision that will largely decide how far the quasi alliance between Japan and Australia can go – the “US leads, allies follow” situation remains unchanged. What’s worth noting is that what Tokyo and Canberra are doing now – hyping up major-country threats and building Cold War-like defense cooperation – may end up becoming a new scourge that will rock the regional security order.