Japan and Australia agree to strengthen defence ties

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) with his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull at a joint signing ceremony in Sydney on Jan 14, 2017.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) with his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull at a joint signing ceremony in Sydney on Jan 14, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (REUTERS, AFP ) – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull in Sydney on Saturday (Jan 14) where the pair agreed to deepen defence ties through joint military training and exercises.

Abe’s visit to Australia is the first since Turnbull became prime minister in late 2015, and comes amid heightened regional tension as China asserts its claims over disputed territory in the South China Sea. 

“We have confirmed our commitment to the rule of law, free trade and open markets in our region,” Turnbull told reporters at a joint press conference on Saturday.

Abe said the increasingly uncertain geopolitical landscape made the relationship between Japan and Australia more important than ever. 

“It is important to guard and increase the robustness of the free, open and rules-based international order,” Abe said.

The two leaders announced the signing of an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), which will increase cooperation in combined exercises, training and peace-keeping operations. The agreement is expected to be finalised by the end of 2017.

The announcement comes nearly nine months after Australia chose a French bid over a Japanese design for a new fleet of submarines.

The loss of the US$40 billion (S$57.1 billion) contract was a major blow for Abe’s ambitions to develop Japan’s defence export capabilities as part of a more muscular security agenda.

Japan, as well as Australia, is looking to protect its strategic and trade interests in Asia-Pacific, especially as China becomes increasingly assertive in the South China Sea.

Both leaders also reaffirmed the importance of their respective security alliances with the United States on Saturday.

China’s recent naval exercises in the South China Sea and the building of islands there, with military assets, has unnerved its neighbours and risks a fallout with the United States.

US president-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has said China should be denied access to islands it has built in the South China Sea.

China claims most of the resource-rich South China Sea through which about US$5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbours Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

The two countries also pledged on Saturday to work together to ensure the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal comes into force, but made no mention of the strong US opposition.

Abe and Turnbull released a joint statement after their meeting which “stressed that implementing the TPP remains an indispensable priority because of the significant economic and strategic benefits it offers.” 

US President Barack Obama had championed the deal saying it would enable Washington to set the global trade agenda in the face of China’s increasing economic might. But President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly shot it down as bad for America and particularly for jobs, casting a dark shadow over its future.