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Australia cements closer ties with Japan

Scott Morrison first foreign leader to call on Yoshihide Suga in person

| Australia
Morrison is prepared to spend two weeks in quarantine.   © Getty Images

Dave Sharma was Australia's ambassador to Israel from 2013 to 2017. Now a member of Australia's House of Representatives, he chairs the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties.

After Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison meets with Japan's new leader Yoshihide Suga in Tokyo today, he will -- like any other Australian returning from overseas -- spend two weeks in quarantine. Australia's egalitarianism makes no exceptions, even for Prime Ministers.

Morrison will spend two weeks isolated at the Prime Minister's official residence in Canberra, The Lodge, and will have to appear virtually when Parliament sits, leading the Government on the floor of the House of Representatives from a video monitor.

That Morrison is prepared to go to such lengths to visit Prime Minister Suga, becoming the first foreign leader to do so, speaks volumes about the growing significance of the Australia-Japan relationship.

Both U.S. 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 John Howard and Shinzo Abe, provided the platform for security cooperation that has grown steadily since. Japan hosted the second meeting of Quad Foreign Ministers last month, while both countries are currently participating in the Malabar naval exercises with the U.S. and India. On this visit, Morrison and Suga are due to sign a status-of-forces agreement, which will allow even closer cooperation between Australian and Japanese defense forces.

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Oonami, left, and the Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Ballarat, right, conduct a replenishment-at-sea with the Indian Navy fleet tanker INS Shakti during Malabar 2020 on Nov. 4. (Handout photo from U.S. Navy)

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

It is a long way from the nervousness which accompanied the election of President Donald Trump four years ago. Trump had campaigned on reviewing the alliance with Japan and threatening to withdraw U.S. 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 U.S. commitment to the current network of U.S. 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 behavior, not just those that give rise to U.S.-China trade imbalances.

Obama saw China as a peer cooperator. Trump saw China as a peer competitor. Both focused on the bilateral U.S.-China relationship as the main game in the Asia-Pacific and were often 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 denuclearization. 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 saber.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un shake hands in Panmunjom in June 2019: Trump's personal bromance with Kim Jong Un unnerved Japan.   © KCNA/Reuters

Trade will also be high on the agenda. Both Japan and Australia are part of the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, trade deal that was finalized on Sunday, creating Asia's largest free trade zone. But the U.S. is not part of this deal.

Japan and Australia helped rescue and resurrect the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, when the Trump Administration withdrew. Both Suga and Morrison would welcome the U.S. 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 Organization, was originally 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. While Australia is currently feeling this pressure, China has in the past 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 politicizing trade in this way, and in ensuring a new Biden Administration does not weaponize 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 nondiscriminatory trading system is what has helped deliver a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific.

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

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