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Indo-Pacific

Indo-Pacific partners Japan and Australia bolster defense ties

Suga-Morrison pact will streamline joint military exercises

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga bump elbows before a welcome ceremony in Tokyo on Nov. 17.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga received his first in-person visitor who is a leader of a foreign nation Tuesday, meeting his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison at the prime minister's office in Tokyo.

The Australian leader flew to Tokyo despite the 14-day quarantine he must undergo upon returning to Canberra, in line with his country's strict travel restrictions.

The mutual gestures reflected the determination on both sides to strengthen cooperation toward a "free and open Indo-Pacific." The two leaders reached a basic agreement to boost defense cooperation that will make it easier for the two countries to conduct joint military exercises and operations by streamlining procedures.

"Prime minister, in any relationship, first impressions really count," Morrison said in a joint news conference after the meeting. "And I can assure you, the first impressions on us both today, I think, have been extremely positive, and I look forward to a very important and very fruitful partnership between us in the years ahead."

During their meeting, Morrison said he would call Suga "Yoshi," and invited the Japanese prime minister to call him "ScoMo," a common nickname for the Australian leader. The two leaders reportedly used the friendly forms of address at dinner.

The landmark defense pact agreed to on Tuesday, the Reciprocal Access Agreement, is something Tokyo and Canberra have been eyeing for years.

The agreement still needs to be approved by lawmakers in both countries. If it is put into effect, it would strip away administrative procedures required for one side to send troops for drills on the other's soil. It would also simplify the process of moving arms and vehicles between the two, further lowering hurdles to cooperation involving Japan's Self-Defense Forces and the Australian military.

Defense cooperation between Japan and Australia has largely been focused on joint drills involving the two countries' naval and air forces. The new agreement is expected to promote person-to-person contact between Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force and the Australian Army, potentially including their cyber and electronic warfare teams.

In a joint statement after the meeting, the two leaders expressed serious concern about the situation in the South China Sea, reconfirming "their strong opposition to any coercive or unilateral attempts to change the status quo and thereby increase tensions in the region," a rebuke of China's increased maritime activity.

They explicitly pointed to continued militarization of disputed features, dangerous use of coast guard vessels, ballistic missile launches and efforts to disrupt other countries' resource exploitation activities, all actions China has been accused of.

The two welcomed the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership on Sunday, adding that "RCEP remains open for India." 

At the news conference in Tokyo, Suga said he wanted to "confirm that Japan and Australia are strengthening their partnership to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific."

Morrison, meanwhile, also touched on the potential of hydrogen energy in his remarks to reporters. The Australian leader said he expects an initial shipment of hydrogen to be sent to Japan by around March 2021.

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