Defense agreement between Japan and Australia opens up opportunities for closer cooperation

The Prime Ministers of Australia and Japan met virtually on January 6 and signed a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) which makes it easier for troops from each nation to operate in the other’s country. Equally important, it strengthens the political and psychological foundations for increased military cooperation between the two nations.

It is the first such agreement signed by Japan with a country other than the United States. And it took time.

An agreement in principle was reached in November 2020 between Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, after six years of negotiations. It took another 14 months to finalize the deal.

The door is now wide open in both directions for virtually any initiative desired by both parties.

It should be remembered, however, that the Japanese and Australian military are no strangers. Japanese forces have been training in Australia since the early 2010s, which included sending ships and troops to Talisman Saber and other exercises. Japanese ships also exercised alongside the Royal Australian Navy as part of Exercise Malabar in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

Individual members of the Australian Defense Force have served in Japan for decades. And Royal Australian Air Force planes have used US bases in Japan (under UN auspices) in recent years while enforcing North Korean sanctions. And in September 2019, a detachment of Australian F-18s conducted the first-ever joint combat exercise with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force in Japan.

Ten years ago, most observers considered a Japan-Australia RAA and all of the above activities impossible.

Chinese threats, pressures and saber-thrusts do indeed have a good side.

Now that the deal has been signed, what matters is what both parties think of it.

There are easy things to start moving forward.

An Australian Army Liaison Officer is now posted to the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force Ground Combat Command in Japan. But it’s not that useful. It will be better to see one or two Australian liaison officers assigned to the headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in Tokyo.

The right officers, pushing and persuading – and with the help of the US Marines and US Navy – can advance the defense relationship between Australia and Japan on a much wider front than army-to-army.

And when the Americans and the Japanese finally establish a joint headquarters in Japan (hopefully before all hell freezes over), the Australians should be an integral part of it.

Another useful initiative would be to send an RAAF squadron to Japan for long-term deployment and, vice versa, a Japanese Air Self-Defense Force squadron to Australia. It is also easy to bring the Australian Army and Navy to practice in Japan.

Besides the favorable optics of the JSDF and ADF operating together, Japan benefits from deeper exposure to another military and different ways of doing things. And both benefit from the psychological and political ties that come from deeper military relations.

The JSDF needs realistic training opportunities to become more professional. He cannot make it in Japan, due to limited training areas and excessive local restrictions.

Australia provides excellent opportunities for all three JSDF services to train alone, together and with other service members.

Australia’s Northern Territory, in particular, is the best place in the entire hemisphere for the kind of frantic combined arms training that Japan desperately needs. The JSDF’s only alternative is to make the trip to Southern California – and even then the US training facilities are not as good as those in the Northern Territory.

Here’s an idea: combine Japanese and Australian amphibious forces into a joint task force to master the complex air-sea-ground coordination that is integral to amphibious operations, but also applies to a wider range of military operations.

Send a Japanese amphibious ship – even an older tank landing ship – and a battalion of Japanese “marines” from the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade to Australia for six months and operate out of Darwin, as well as in Queensland, with the Australian Amphibious Force. It’s a good way to give the new unit a real experience outside of Japan, in an unfamiliar environment and with foreign forces. That’s how an army improves. The Australian Amphibious Force may also use this practice.

Perhaps the two could operate the Australian-Japanese task force to Southeast Asia or all of Oceania, with training in humanitarian aid and disaster response as one of his missions. This is urgently needed as Chinese influence steadily expands in the region.

All of this is far preferable to canned drills in Kyushu or Hokkaido – with “commissars” at JSDF headquarters in nearby Ichigaya to keep training as “safe” (in other words, unrealistic) as possible – while cowering lest anyone might complain the formation is ‘too loud’ or ‘scary’.

But isn’t the Talisman Saber exercise enough? Maybe just enlarge it?

No. Talisman Saber is a good exercise. But for participants, such exercises can become like a piano player practicing a single song. They may play it perfectly, but it’s still just a song. Moreover, it is a song that the opponents have had time to study.

The RAA is politically important. Rather than give in to threats and bullying from Beijing, two of Asia’s leading democracies are deepening their defense ties – with the potential to create real operational capabilities – and employing them across the region.

The RAA also denies Beijing’s strident claims that nations in the region dislike Japan because of World War II and fear a remilitarized Japan. Australians have as much reason to hold a grudge as anyone, but they have long recognized that the Japan of today is not the Japan of the 1930s or 1940s. the feeling in most of the Indo-Pacific, if you look closely.

The RAA is also good news for Americans.

For starters, US forces are overstretched regionally and globally. Everything the JSDF does in Australia or with Australia fulfills the desperate (though unstated) US need for a more capable JSDF. This means a JSDF capable of fighting on its own, and also as an ally. And that’s no less good for Australia, which is gone, but not big enough to defend against an angry China.

Equally important, increased activity between Japan and Australia is shattering the hub-and-spoke nature of the American presence in the Pacific. It is a construction that means that American forces too often operate bilaterally with the countries of Asia-Pacific (the “rays”).

The spokes must work together, creating a more sustainable network, without the Americans running things. This enhances capabilities and also deepens the psychological and political bonds that arise from military-to-military engagements between like-minded nations.

This does not mean that the Americans are excluded or useless, but rather it reinforces the American presence as part of a more complex and solid network of defense relations. It should be considered a bracing rather than a replacement or hedge.

The web-based approach is particularly important because, given that the countries involved are democracies where policies may change with elections, the more overlapping defense relationships there are, the more likely the region as a whole can continue to strengthen its defense posture even if the government changes. at one of the partners.

Beijing is of course unhappy with the RAA and will use its leverage to try to stifle it before it can fully form.

Japan’s once-powerful pro-Beijing constituencies in the political, official and business worlds are at rest for now, but that may change. Given this, one wonders whether Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration could put a damper on attempts to do more with Australia on the military front.

Something similar could even happen in Australia if the Labor Party wins the next election. Labor says they won’t, but one wonders.

Also, hopefully, the Japanese government does not take the RAA to mean that Japan needs to do less on defense.

Kishida needs to allow the JSDF to significantly up their game. The Japanese military still needs more money (for training and personnel) and to meet recruitment targets which it has missed by 25% per year for years. The JSDF is still not ready to fight a war – needing, among other things, a joint capability (which it does not have).

Too often it seems that signing an agreement is an end in itself.

Here is an idea. A year from now, let’s hold another press conference and see what has really been achieved through the RAA – and what the Japanese and Australians are doing with each other – that could only happen through the RAA.

Sometimes it’s good to keep score.