SYDNEY -- Japan and Australia on Wednesday vowed to sign an agreement soon that will allow for greater military cooperation within each other's borders, as the countries keep an eye on China's growing maritime influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
"The ministers reaffirmed their strong commitment to conclude the negotiations [on a Visiting Forces Agreement] as early as is feasible," said a joint statement issued by the countries' defense and foreign affairs chiefs, who met here in "two-plus-two" talks. It was the first such meeting between the nations since April 2017.
Such agreements define the legal status of military personnel involved in temporary activities in the respective country's territory, such as joint-training or disaster-relief missions.
"The ministers determined to explore opportunities to conduct broader areas of bilateral/multilateral training and exercises involving the Australian Defence Force and Japan Self-Defense Forces, including in areas such as disaster response, anti-submarine warfare, and mine counter measures," the statement said. The nations agreed to hold their first fighter jet exercises sometime next year, as well as expand opportunities for joint training and drills between their two air forces.
Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne revealed during the meeting that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to visit Darwin in November, a city in the country's north that suffered many casualties from bombings by the Japanese military in World War II.
The trip to Darwin is likely aimed at highlighting Japan and Australia's status as "semi-allies," meaning they cooperate on objectives but the ties fall short of a full alliance. The countries hope to reach agreement on a basic framework for the Visiting Forces Agreement at a summit during the November visit.
According to the statement, the ministers reaffirmed their intention to further develop trilateral cooperation and coordination among Japan, Australia and India. They also welcomed the progress in cooperation among Japan, Australia, India and the United States.
Tokyo has moved to strengthen its relationship with Canberra as part of Abe's Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy to cooperate with the U.S., Australia, India and other countries in the region under common values like the rule of law.
China's growing military assertiveness at sea was a topic of discussion, with the statement noting that the ministers remained seriously concerned about the situation in the South China Sea. The ministers "reaffirmed the importance of upholding the rules-based regional and international order, respect for international law, freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded trade," the statement said. "The ministers also expressed their opposition to the use of disputed features for military purposes, urging all parties to pursue the demilitarisation of such features."
Australia's relations with China have shifted in recent years. A scandal erupted in 2016 when it was discovered that an opposition lawmaker had accepted large donations from a Chinese businessman. Then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was considered pro-Beijing early in his tenure, abruptly shifted to a hard-line stance against China in late 2017. His successor, Scott Morrison, has maintained that posture.
"China is challenging America's position" in the Indo-Pacific, Australia said in a foreign policy white paper last November, pointing out the relative decline of Washington's presence in the region and Beijing's rise. Australia is alarmed by China's expansion of its influence through infrastructure development support among the Pacific Islands, a region Canberra considers its backyard.
Although Japan has Status of Forces Agreements with the U.S. and the United Nations, and hosts the international body's rear command for the Korean War, it does not have a Visiting Forces Agreement with any country. Without a VFA, visiting forces must follow certain procedures to ensure that the other country's laws are respected. Exercises between Japan's Self-Defense Forces and the British army last month required such steps, for example.
A VFA would allow this process to proceed more smoothly. Yet potential hurdles remain, such as questions over whether Japan's death penalty can be applied to Australian military personnel convicted of a crime in the country.