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International relations

Japan, Australia agree to boost defense cooperation amid rising China

South China Sea worries prompt Abe and Morrison to vow 'free and open Indo-Pacific'

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison voiced serious concerns over increased Chinese militarization during their meeting in Darwin, Australia on November 16.   © Reuters

DARWIN, Australia (Kyodo) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison agreed Friday to deepen defense cooperation in the face of China's growing influence in the region, while expressing their support for a free multilateral trading system.

During their first meeting since Morrison took power in August, the two leaders affirmed their countries' shared vision of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" aimed at promoting freedom of navigation, the rule of law and financially viable infrastructure projects from Asia to Africa.

"Japan and Australia will further deepen our special strategic partnership to realize our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific," Abe said at a joint press conference with Morrison following their talks in Darwin, a key military port city in the northern part of the Oceanian country.

A joint statement released after the talks said the two leaders also "remained seriously concerned about the situation in the South China Sea," apparently with China's militarization of the disputed area in mind.

"Australia and Japan also stand united on the importance of resolving disputes in the South China Sea, peacefully and in accordance with international law," Morrison said in the press conference.

"We are strongly opposed to any actions that could increase tensions within the region."

The two countries also stressed in the joint statement the need for a "complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement" of all of North Korea's nuclear weapons, other weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles in accordance with U.N. Security Council resolutions.

With Japan viewing Australia as a "quasi-ally," the two also agreed to seek the conclusion early next year of a reciprocal access agreement to facilitate joint military exercises and other activities of their defense forces in each other's countries.

Tokyo and Canberra have deepened their bilateral security ties through eight rounds of so-called two-plus-two meetings of defense and foreign ministers.

A revised acquisition and cross-servicing agreement took effect in July last year, allowing the countries to provide ammunition and other defense supplies to each other.

On the economic front, the two prime ministers "reaffirmed their unwavering commitment to a free and open rules-based multilateral trading system for global stability and prosperity," according to the joint press statement.

The agreement comes as the revised 11-member Trans-Pacific Partnership is set to go into force on Dec. 30 after Australia ratified it late last month. The United States abruptly withdrew from the original TPP in January last year and U.S. President Donald Trump has pushed for bilateral deals to fix what he calls unfair trade.

Abe and Morrison, meanwhile, hailed Inpex Corp.'s large-scale liquefied natural gas project in a gas field off Darwin, the first Japanese-operated LNG project abroad.

Production from the Ichthys gas field began in July with an expected annual output of around 8.9 million tons, 70 percent of which is bound for Japanese customers.

Prior to their talks, Abe and Morrison visited the Darwin Cenotaph war memorial, marking the city's bombing by the Japanese military during World War II, in a symbolic show of reconciliation.

The bombing of Darwin in February 1942 killed more than 200 people. The northern Australian city was a stronghold of Allied forces during the war.

Abe made the stop in the capital of Australia's Northern Territory between Association of Southeast Asian Nations-related meetings in Singapore and the upcoming summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Papua New Guinea.

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