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Japan, Australia’s new defense pact sends a message to China: Analyst

A senior analyst from an Australian think-tank said Friday that a new defense pact between Australia and Japan sends a strong message to China – that the two countries will work closely to ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison around Thursday. The two countries have signed a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) that will be subject to the necessary domestic procedures before it can enter into force “as soon as possible”.

The agreement will pave the way for closer defense ties between the two countries, as Japanese and Australian forces can deploy from each other’s bases and establish joint protocols, according to Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“What is more important is the strategic message the RAA is sending to the region – that Japan and Australia are working more closely together to ensure the freedom and openness of the Indo-Pacific,” Davis said on CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia.

“This is happening in an emerging context of China being more assertive, even more aggressive, in areas such as the South China Sea, the East China Sea, where there is a territorial dispute between Japan and China, and of course with regard to Taiwan.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison presents a document during a virtual summit with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio in Canberra on January 6, 2022.

AFP | Getty Images

“I fully expect some brief statements from the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing,” Davis said, referring to China’s possible response to the Australia-Japan defense pact, which has been in the works for years.

“They won’t like this, but frankly, we’re making our defense policy choices based on Australia’s needs, not what China is happy with,” he added.

What is the Indo-Pacific region?

These arrangements send a strong message to Beijing that the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and other major powers are working together to do a number of things, Davis said. First, it shows the countries’ commitment to building a stable, free and open Indo-Pacific; Second, it serves as a means of deterring China in areas of contention, including Taiwan.

“Third, the ability to respond to threats as they arise,” he added.

Taiwan is at the forefront of discussions as the United States, Japan and Australia strengthen their ties with each other, Curtis Chen, an Asia fellow at the Milken Institute, told CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia” on Friday.

“If China spoke freely, I obviously think they would be concerned,” he added.

China’s rising influence

ASPI’s Davis told CNBC that a major concern is the possibility of China taking some action against Taiwan — and that existing security agreements and arrangements in the Indo-Pacific could “enhance the credibility of deterrence.”

Some political analysts say the rising tensions between the US and China over Taiwan will be the biggest threat to Asia this year.

On the economic front, China is a member of the world’s largest trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which It includes a number of countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Beijing is also pushing to join another huge trade deal in that part of the world.

The United States does not participate in any of these trade agreements.

China also has an ambitious program called the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to build physical and digital infrastructure connecting hundreds of countries from Asia to the Middle East, Africa and Europe and expand the country’s influence in those regions.

The Milken Institute’s Chen explained that while much of the discussion revolves around how other countries will respond to a rising China, it is also important to look at what the country is facing domestically.

This includes its efforts to contain the outbreak of the Covid virus as well as trying to get its economy back on track – economists worry that problems in the property market and sluggish consumption could affect growth prospects in China.

However, Chen said he hopes that in 2022 all parties involved will step back and realize this [to] Nobody benefits if what some call an emerging cold war becomes a hot war in the Asia-Pacific region.”

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