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Australia seeks to build defence ties to counter Chinese expansionism

Australian PM Scott Morrison will meet his Japanese counterpart Yoshihide Suga in person in Tokyo Tuesday for crucial defence talks, highlighting the gravity of the trip.

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Canberra: Australia is taking the next step toward building a coalition of “like-minded” democracies pushing back against what they view as Beijing’s increasing expansionism in the Indo-Pacific — even as the list of trade reprisals against it grows.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison will meet his Japanese counterpart Yoshihide Suga in Tokyo Tuesday for crucial defense talks that come just weeks after foreign ministers of the Quad alliance, which also includes the U.S. and India, met in the Japanese capital.

Morrison and Suga are scheduled to sign a reciprocal security access agreement that has been under negotiation for six years, the Australian Financial Review reported Nov. 10, without citing sources. The pact would codify rules for hosting visiting troops to each other’s country for training and operations, it said.

“A closer security arrangement is on the cards in Tokyo in a bid to mitigate the risks of a more adventurous China,” said John Blaxland, a former intelligence officer who’s now a professor at the Australian National University. “There is a clear overlap of interests when it comes to managing maritime security, but Australia will still be mindful it may be seen as leading attempts to gang up against Beijing.”

Morrison told reporters last week that he viewed the Quad as “very important.” Underscoring the gravity of the trip, he will visit Suga in person even though pandemic protocols mean he will need to self-isolate for two weeks on his return.

‘Utmost concern’

The Chinese government will view the meeting with “cautious eyes and slight nervousness,” said Yoshikazu Kato, an adjunct professor at the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong. The renewed impetus of the Quad since 2017, when it was revived in a bid to create a buffer against Beijing, is a symbol that democracies are willing to become “unprecedentedly united in their stance to contain China — it’s of the utmost concern” to Beijing, he said.

In recent years, Australia has ramped up diplomatic lobbying to strengthen alliances with other democracies, a strategy that paid off earlier this month when it was invited for the first time by India to participate in the Malabar naval exercises along with other Quad members.

Still, Australia’s move to take a leading role in the Quad, along with other multilateral groupings such as the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance, may lead to further punishment from Beijing that could exacerbate its reputation as China’s new whipping boy.

While tensions had been growing for years, Australia tipped its relationship with its largest trading partner to a new nadir in April by leading international calls for independent investigators to enter Wuhan to probe the origin of the coronavirus.

China’s pride was bruised and since then, crippling tariffs have been placed to Australia’s barley exports, and traders have been ordered to stop buying Australian commodities including coal, copper and wine.

Earlier this month, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said bilateral relations had deteriorated after Australia launched 106 trade investigations on Chinese goods, compared with four from the Chinese side, while Australia had refused to approve 10 inbound investment deals on “unfounded national security concerns.”

Also read: China says Australia knows what’s needed to improve ties

‘Economic coercion’

Morrison’s conservative government has rejected Beijing’s trade reprisals as “economic coercion,” even as it laments a breakdown in relations that’s put ministerial contact on ice.

“It’s extremely important that the three key democracies in the region — Japan, Australia and India, from one side of the Indo-Pacific to the other — are coming together around shared values and keeping vital maritime trade routes thriving,” said Paul Maddison, a former commander of the Royal Canadian Navy who also served as that nation’s high commissioner in Canberra. “It sends a signal to China that just because it has the largest economic strength, it can’t shape the region in whatever way that it wishes.”

While Beijing’s trade attacks against Morrison’s government are “scary stuff, instead of shrinking Australia is trying to help build a world-view that’s in contrast of President Xi Jinping’s,” said Maddison, who’s now the Canberra-based director of the University of New South Wales Defence Research Institute.

That’s become more important under the “America First” doctrine on President Donald Trump; while President-Elect Joe Biden is expected to give more importance to traditional alliances, realistically he will need to place most of his government’s focus on repairing domestic divisions and economic damage caused by the pandemic.

Such concerns about the U.S. also resonate in Tokyo, where tensions around East China Sea islands disputed between China and Japan have worsened in recent months, sparking frequent diplomatic protests.

Democracies in the Indo-Pacific “can engage China only if we are united,” Nobukatsu Kanehara, a professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto who is a former deputy secretary-general of Japan’s National Security Secretariat, said in an interview. The Quad provides the opportunity for strategic stability, and without it all nations apart from the U.S. may have to “surrender to China — they are now too big for anybody.”- Bloomberg

Also read: Stranded coal ships become latest casualty of China-Australia spat


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