Australia and Japan are about to sign a reciprocal access agreement to make it easier for their respectively militaries to visit each other’s countries for exercises and other activities, according to reports in Japan.
Nikkei Asia has said that the agreement will be signed next year, with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's government aims to conclude agreement soon and bring it before the Asian country’s parliament for approval in 2022.
When signed, the agreement will be the first one Japan has signed with a country other that the United States, which has a Status of Forces Agreement with Japan and allows American military forces to be stationed throughout its ally’s territory.
An agreement with Australia would “streamline both countries' complex entry procedures for foreign defense forces and equipment, which have become increasingly burdensome as the two engage in more joint exercises”, according to Nikkei.
It would said Canberra and Tokyo began negotiating the access agreement in 2014, but stalled partially due to concerns over the risk of Australian troops potentially being subject to the death penalty in Japan.
Nikkei added the two sides eventually agreed that Japan will not have jurisdiction in cases involving troops carrying out their official duties, but crimes outside that context will be subject to Japanese law.
Australia and Japan have stepped up defence cooperation in recent years as concerns increase over China’s increasingly capable military and its assertive security posture.
These include more joint and multilateral military exercises including Japanese forces, with Japan Ground and Maritime Self-Defense Force participation in Exercise Talisman Sabre since 2015 and Japan Air Self-Defense Force Mitsubishi F-2 fighter jets were due to take part in Exercise Pitch Black 2020 before it was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Australian Forces have also taken part in military exercise in Japan, with RAAF assets deploying to Japan for Exercise Bushido Guardian in 2019, with the 2021 iteration which was to have taken place at Komatsu also cancelled, again due to COVID-19.
Major John Howlett also became the first Australian Army liaison officer to take up the post in Japan from January this year, following a decision made between the defence ministers of both countries in 2019. A Japan Ground Self-Defense Force officer will take up a reciprocal post in Australia next year.
The two countries have deals governing defense equipment transfers and intelligence, along with an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement to enable sharing of fuel and other supplies.
The more visible Japanese defence posture has been due in a large part to former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who has pushed for a more liberal interpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution, a course of action made more palatable to the Japanese public by increasingly assertive Chinese actions, particularly in the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea which is administered by Japan but whose ownership is also claimed by China.
Dr Euan Graham, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute of Strategic Studies - Asia, told ADM that having an RAA is vital for allowing personnel through without separate diplomatic clearance, adding that maintenance and resupply for each others forces requires a standing agreement that covers all contingencies.
He pointed out that a potential pitfall of conducting maintenance offshore without such an agreement with the host could see replacement parts failing to clear customs in time or encounter other bits of bureaucratic obstruction.
He cited the recent decision by the United Kingdom to divert to Guam for maintenance of the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth for maintenance instead of doing so during its scheduled visit to Japan, adding that “combination of Japanese bureaucracy and the Japan Foreign Ministry’s protectiveness over sovereignty are not to be underestimated”.
Australia’s own phytosanitary restrictions on military equipment entering the country, which he described as “onerous” and has been echoed by foreign military personnel who have encountered them, would also be addressed by the RAA, although these would be done without compromising Australia’s biosecurity rules.