November 2020

Australia cements closer ties with Japan

Originally published in Nikkei Asia on 17 November 2020

Following his trip to Japan, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will return to Australia and, like every other returning Australian, be forced to spend two weeks in home quarantine.

Australia's egalitarianism makes no exceptions, even for Prime Ministers.

Morrison will spend a fortnight isolated at the Prime Minister's official residence in Canberra, The Lodge. He will have to appear virtually when Parliament sits, leading the Government on the floor of Parliament from a video monitor. That Morrison is prepared to go to such lengths to visit Japanese Prime Minister Suga, becoming the first foreign leader to do so, speaks volumes about the growing significance of the Australia-Japan relationship.

Both US allies, Australia and Japan have been close economic partners for over sixty years. But it is only in the past two decades that the relationship has taken on a security and strategic dimension, starting with the deployment of Australian troops to protect Japanese personnel in southern Iraq in 2005.

A Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in 2007, concluded between Prime Ministers Howard and Abe, provided the platform for security cooperation that has grown steadily since. Japan hosted the second meeting of Quad Foreign Ministers last month, whilst both countries are currently participating in the Malabar naval exercises with the United States and India. On this visit, Morrison and Suga are due to sign a status-of-forces agreement, which will allow closer cooperation between Australian and Japanese defence forces.

Morrison and Suga will have much to discuss. First up will be what a new US Administration will mean for the region. Both Suga and Morrison have had introductory calls with the US President-elect, and both will have been reassured by the alliance-affirming tone from Biden. Biden confirmed the US-Japan security treaty applied to the Senkaku Islands in his call with Suga. With Morrison, he expressed his commitment to strengthen the US-Australia alliance and maintain a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.

It's a long way from the nervousness which accompanied the election of President Trump four years ago. Trump had campaigned on reviewing the alliance with Japan and threatening to withdraw US troops stationed there, and had a famously testy first phone call with then Australian leader Malcolm Turnbull.

Both Morrison and Suga will be keen for Biden to affirm US commitment to the current network of US alliances, a forward security presence in Asia, and to important initiatives such as the Quad. On China, they will encourage the Biden Administration to engage on all aspects of China's problematic behaviour, not just those that give rise to US-China trade imbalances.

Obama saw China as a peer co-operator. Trump saw China as a peer competitor. Both focused on the bilateral US-China relationship as the main game in the Asia-Pacific, and were often-times frustrated with the results. Japan and Australia will be arguing for a more regional, allied-centric approach for managing China: one focused less on grand bargains concluded bilaterally, and more on incremental strengthening of key norms, working with regional partners.

On North Korea, Trump's personal bromance with Kim Jong Un made for compelling viewing but deeply unnerved Japan. It put an end to North Korean provocations but delivered nothing by way of denuclearisation. This is an area bereft of good policy options, but nonetheless Japan and Australia will be hoping for closer coordination with a Biden Administration when -- as is almost certain to happen -- Pyongyang begins to rattle its sabre.

Trade will also be high on the agenda. Both Japan and Australia are part of the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade deal which has just been finalised, creating Asia's largest free trade zone. But the United States is not part of this deal.

Japan and Australia helped rescue and resurrect the Trans Pacific Partnership when the Trump Administration withdrew. Both Suga and Morrison would welcome the United States back to the TPP, which would massively increase its weight and relevance, and allow the higher ambition and stronger norms of the TPP to balance the China-heavy RCEP.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and its successor the World Trade Organisation was intended to quarantine trade from politics, allowing nations to trade freely and with recourse to agreed rules and principles regardless of political context.

China's use of trade as a weapon of statecraft is threatening this order. Australia is currently feeling this pressure, but in the past China has manufactured trade disputes as a way to pressure South Korea, Japan and many other countries.

Japan and Australia share an interest in discouraging China from politicising trade in this way, and in ensuring a new Biden Administration does not weaponise trade as Trump did.

Suga and Morrison should discuss ways to form a united front, with like-minded nations, in pushing back against such actions. The open and non-discriminatory trading system is what has helped deliver a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific.

The Australia-Japan relationship is a stabilising force in the Indo-Pacific, and few relationships matter more right now to Australia. Morrison's two weeks in quarantine are worth it.