Australian Outlook

In this section

Another Piece in the Jigsaw: Australia and Japan Sign Long-Awaited Reciprocal Access Agreement

20 Jan 2022
By Thomas Wilkins
Marines, Australian Army soldiers and Japanese Self-Defense Force members come together to commemorate an official opening ceremony for the beginning of exercise Southern Jackaroo, 2021. Source: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command

As parts of their Special Strategic Partnership, Australia and Japan have formally signed a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA). This will enable even closer cooperation between their respective military forces, including training, base access, and logistics.

The 2021 Annual Leaders’ Summit Meeting between Prime Ministers Scott Morrison and his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, finalised the long-awaited bilateral Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA). The RAA will permit closer and smoother practical military-to-military cooperation between the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) by legislating sensitive areas, such as access to one another’s military bases and ports, logistical streamlining, and harmonising relevant security protocols. This is designed to facilitate joint military training and exercises on Australian and Japanese territory by cutting some of the existing red tape.

A Fraught Regional Security Landscape in the Indo-Pacific

This latest development comes at a time when both countries view the deteriorating security environment in the Indo-Pacific with ever-growing trepidation. Over recent years, a combination of provocative and sustained actions emanating from Beijing, such as the economic coercion against Australia, the increased tempo of Chinese military patrols near the Senkaku Islands — administered by Japan and claimed as Diaoyu-dao by China — coupled with increased pressure on Taiwan, have drawn Canberra and Tokyo even closer together.

In the context of heightened strategic rivalry in both the security and economic spheres between China and their joint US ally, the regional strategic environment has taken a sharp turn for the worse, as viewed from Canberra and Tokyo’s shared vantagepoints. Sworn to uphold a rules-based order, resolve disputes peacefully in accord with international law, and refrain from economic coercion and promote freedom of navigation and trade — as emblematised in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vison — Australia and Japan have responded by augmenting bilateral cooperation both within and outside of their shared alliances with Washington.

What is the significance of the RAA?

It’s important to put the RAA, the latest development in the bilateral Special Strategic Partnership, into perspective. Some of the media coverage has characterised that the RAA as a “defence pact” or even a “military alliance.” The RAA is not some grandiose and transformational agreement that makes Australia and Japan de jure “military allies,” nor does it portend some form of “Asian NATO.” Nevertheless, it is significant both in itself, and when placed into context of the Special Strategic Partnership’s dramatic evolution as a whole.

Firstly, with an eye towards improving interoperability between the ADF and JSDF across the air, sea, and land domains, whether it be joint training or military manoeuvres, or disaster relief operations, the RAA clears the way for more seamless cooperation. Conducting military operations with partners — or as part of a coalition — involves extraordinary challenges, so increasing interaction, which concomitantly breeds familiarity and trust, is crucial to success in the event of conflict. By removing or simplifying legal and logistical barriers and providing access to one another’s equipment and facilities, such challenges can be prepared for and mitigated accordingly.

RAA negotiations began as far back as 2014 and led to an “agreement in principle” in 2020. The reason that it has taken some time and no small political effort to finalise the RAA is due to Australian concerns about ADF personnel stationed in Japan being hypothetically subject to capital punishment for serious crimes under Japanese law. In contrast, due to lingering historical perceptions of Japan, especially the 1942 attacks upon Darwin in the Pacific War, the stationing of JDSF personnel on Australian soil had to be handled sensitively. Moreover, having exclusively relied on the US as a military partner until recent years — American troops in Japan are covered by the Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) — this was also new legal territory for Japan to navigate. It is testament both to the importance Tokyo assigns to unfettered cooperation with Australia and the urgency it feels in the midst of an increasingly severe regional security environment that these obstacles could now be surmounted.

Secondly, the RAA represents another step forward in the larger edifice of the Special Strategic Partnership. Though Australia and Japan had increasingly begun to refer to one another as “partners” in the post-Cold War period, it was the 2007 Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation (JDSC) that broke the mould of historically cordial but distant relations. The JDSC explicitly linked the security postures of the two countries committing them to, “working together, and with others, to respond to new security challenges and threats, as they arise,” through “practical cooperation” based on “shared values and interests.” It was followed by a number of regularly updated Action Plans and a Partnership Agenda that embedded the bilateral relationship in the specialised institutional structure through which it now operates, including annualised leadership summits and foreign and defence ministers (2+2) meetings. Over time, logistical, information sharing, and defence technology cooperation agreements have been grafted onto this framework. The partnership is now a major fixture of both Canberra’s and Tokyo’s regional policy responses.

Notably, the RAA was simply the headlining element of this year’s annual leaders’ summit meeting. Stung by economic coercion from China and disruption in supply chains due to COVID-19, the partners also declared their intention to enhance cooperation on economic security issues. As “security” and “geoeconomics” have become more intertwined in unfolding strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific, this area of cooperation has acquired greater salience. The 2022 Joint Statement committed the partners to building greater resilience on supply chains (including critical minerals), enhancing protection of critical infrastructure, and upholding international standards in multilateral forums. It also extended to increased cooperation on the development of advanced technology, such as quantum and artificial intelligence (AI), and working together on cyber security. Attendant to this was a list of joint concerns and statements of joint action ranging from North Korea and nuclear non-proliferation to climate security. All this indicates just how strong bilateral ties have become and how multifaceted the partnership has now become.

Another Piece in the Jigsaw

The RAA is a further step in the progressive evolution of what has become the second most important security relationship for both Canberra and Tokyo. The RAA is thus best viewed as adding another piece into the jigsaw of the strategic partnership as a whole, reinforcing all other aspects and activities of bilateral cooperation. Indeed, the leaders noted their intention to upgrade their 2007 JDSC in the near future to better reflect the progress made in the past 15 years and address emerging strategic concerns.

In a final note, Japan has also begun negotiations for a similar RAA with its more recent strategic partner, the United Kingdom, indicating that Tokyo is intent on upgrading its military and defence relationships with other “like-minded” partners — seemingly with the Australia strategic partnership serving as a model.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessary reflect those of the institutions with which he is affiliated.

Dr Thomas Wilkins is a Senior Fellow (non-resident) at the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA) thinktank and Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney. He received his Doctorate in International Security from the University of Birmingham and M.Phil in Asian Studies from the University of Sydney. He has been post-doctoral fellow at the University of San Francisco and East-West Centre (Hawaii) and held government fellowships from the Japan Foundation and Japan Society for the Promotion of Sciences (JSPS). He publishes widely in leading academic journals such as The Pacific Review, Pacific Affairs and International Relations of the Asia-Pacific and his latest monograph – Security in Asia-Pacific: The Dynamics of Alignment – is published with Lynne Rienner.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.