TOKYO -- Japan and Australia stressed the "importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait" in a statement Wednesday after a meeting of their defense and diplomatic chiefs, highlighting security cooperation between two U.S. allies on the front lines of deterrence against China.
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi spoke virtually with Australian counterparts Marise Payne and Peter Dutton. This was the two nations' first two-plus-two meeting since October 2018.
This marked the first mention of the Taiwan Strait in a statement by the two countries' foreign and defense ministers. The strait appeared a joint statement in April by U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and is set to be written into an upcoming Group of Seven communique, as countries seek to curb Beijing's growing military pressure on Taiwan.
The officials expressed "serious concerns" about the situation in the East and South China seas, citing "unilateral" attempts to "change the status quo" in an apparent reference to Chinese activity. They also noted "concern" about legislation passed by China earlier this year that upgraded Beijing's coast guard to a quasi-military force and granted it broad powers.
On the security cooperation front, the ministers confirmed that Japan's Self-Defense Forces are authorized to protect Australian Defense Force assets under a new framework, making Australia the second country allowed to receive such protection after the U.S., Japan's sole treaty ally.
The SDF is "ready to provide protection" under this framework "upon request from the ADF, whenever the appropriate opportunity arises," the statement said.
The two sides also said they will accelerate efforts toward signing a reciprocal access agreement, which will cut down on the red tape involved in one nation's forces entering the other country for joint exercises and operations. An agreement was reached in principle in November.
China immediately protested. In a press conference on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin urged Tokyo and Canberra to "stop meddling in China's internal affairs and stop undermining regional peace and stability."
Japan and Australia are moving to deepen defense cooperation amid rising tensions between Canberra and Beijing.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison agreed in a summit last November to elevate bilateral cooperation "to a new level" and to hold a two-plus-two meeting "at the earliest convenient time in 2021" to this end.
Public sentiment toward China has soured in Australia since about four years ago following the revelation that a prominent opposition lawmaker advocating Chinese foreign policy interests had received political funds from the Chinese side. The administration of previous Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, originally seen as friendly toward Beijing, began taking a tougher line in 2017.
A foreign policy white paper released by Australia that year asserted that "China is challenging America's position." It raised concerns about competition for influence in Pacific island nations with which Canberra has close relations, noting aid and loans to these countries from "other sources."
Morrison stuck to this approach after taking office in 2018. The prime minister in April 2020 called for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus outbreak, infuriating Beijing and sparking a partial Chinese ban on imports of Australian meat.
Australia's economic reliance on China has not stopped Canberra from keeping up its criticism.
Defense Minister Dutton said in an April television interview that he does not think the risk of a conflict over Taiwan should be "discounted," noting "animosity" between Taiwan and China.
That month, the Australian government announced plans to expand facilities used by the U.S. military in Darwin port. China said about a week later that it would indefinitely freeze a framework for cabinet-level economic dialogue with Canberra.
"At this point, the country that's most antagonistic toward China is Australia," a senior Japanese government official said. With no direct border with China, Australia has more freedom to apply pressure to Beijing than other countries such as Japan or India that must weigh the risk of a military clash.
China has taken measures against Australia that essentially amount to sanctions. Japan, which also has close economic ties to Beijing, has similar concerns about taking on Beijing while Chinese incursions around the Tokyo-administered Senkaku Islands pose a threat.
For U.S. President Joe Biden's administration, both countries are on the front lines of the faceoff with China.
Caroline Kennedy, who served as American ambassador to Japan under former President Barack Obama, is reportedly under consideration as the next U.S. envoy to Australia, an appointment that would be clearly aimed at strengthening the three-way connection.