Author: Shiro Armstrong, ANU
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to Japan today is no ordinary state visit. It’s the first international trip of the year for Mr Morrison and he becomes the first foreign leader to visit Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at home. They are expected to reach a defence agreement that entrenches an elevated strategic relationship. Alongside deepening bilateral ties, Australia and Japan have an opportunity to steer broader regional outcomes as they seek economic recovery from the pandemic and deal with great power rivalry between China and the United States.
Japan is Australia’s most important partner in Asia. It’s the world’s third largest economy and important to regional peace, prosperity and stability. For Japan, Australia’s by far its largest supplier of energy and strategic raw materials, and now becomes only the second country after the United States to share such close military and security ties.
The deep and broad bilateral relationship has developed step-by-step from the time they were adversaries in World War II to what Mr Morrison calls a ‘very special relationship’ thanks to political will and leadership from both countries.
That political will is on display symbolically as Mr Morrison’s long anticipated trip, postponed twice due to bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic, will cost him two weeks in quarantine on return. Political will is on display substantively with the new defence agreement.
The groundwork was laid recently in visits to Japan by both Defence Minister Reynolds last month and more recently by Foreign Minister Payne for the ministerial meeting of the quadrilateral security dialogue, or the Quad, with India and the United States.
The agenda is important beyond the elevation of security ties. With Mr Suga committing to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the energy transition for Japan now accelerates. That follows China’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2060 with South Korea later making the same commitment as Japan. Those are Australia’s main energy customers, presenting a major challenge and opportunity for Australia.
The bilateral trade and investment relationship is in good shape. How both countries protect their economic security and openness from global economic uncertainties is a priority on which the two leaders will be wise to signal an interest in working with others.
Both countries are tightening up foreign investment rules in the name of security and are trying to navigate the entanglement of economics and security policy around China’s rise and the uncertain response from Washington.
As US allies that both have China as their largest trading partner, Australia and Japan are anchors of stability and security in the region. Together they have the ability to steer and shape positive regional outcomes.
A major boost is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement concluded on the eve of the visit. RCEP Includes Australia, Japan, the 10 ASEAN countries in Southeast Asia plus China, New Zealand and South Korea. It’s the largest trade deal in the world except the WTO that provides the multilateral scaffolding for it.
East Asia’s RCEP agreement sends a strong message of commitment to rules, openness and reform as the world looks for more certainty. It gives multilateral trade momentum but much more is needed.
Canberra and Tokyo need to find creative ways to keep India engaged for eventual RCEP membership. Protectionist forces are still rife globally and president-elect Biden will likely be too focused on domestic divisions to be able to undo the damage from the America First agenda anytime soon.
Deft and strategic diplomacy and cooperation will be needed to manage and navigate the China-US relationship. A Biden presidency will cooperate selectively with China on global issues like climate change and the recovery from COVID-19 without stepping back from strategic competition. There will be more support for multilateral institutions but big powers do deals with little regard for others. Australia is still dealing with the fallout of the trade deal between the two with China needing to divert purchases of Australian agricultural products to try to reach agreed US quotas.
Both Australian and Japanese interests are closely aligned but not identical. Their core interests and approach to others in Asia, including China, differ. Japan has improved its relationship with China in recent years while protecting its fundamental interests. In prosecuting a shared agenda Australia and Japan would be wise to deploy the vast assets in the bilateral relationship including the people-to-people ties, business and academic links that can help to deepen engagement and cooperation including in the wider region.
Australia and Japan face challenges that require multilateral solutions. Mr Morrison and Mr Suga will have to mobilise a broader collective effort to succeed in that.
Shiro Armstrong is Director of the Australia-Japan Research Centre at The Australian National University.
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