Australia has become Japan's most important security partner after the United States. Japan is the world's third largest economy and central to outcomes in Australia's broader neighbourhood and globally.
As Prime Minister Scott Morrison hosts Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in a virtual leaders' summit today to consolidate the deepening security relationship, the leaders will need to reimagine the relationship to tackle the many shared challenges to regional peace, prosperity and stability they both face.
As reported in the Australian Financial Review the long-anticipated Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) will be signed today and enable both countries' defence forces smoother and more timely access to operate in the other country. The RAA gives Australia a status shared only by the United States in Japan and comes at a time of increased anxieties about China's use of its growing military influence and a more complex security environment.
A shared interest in a free, open, inclusive, resilient and prosperous region extends the agenda for Mr. Morrison and Mr. Kishida well beyond security cooperation to deepening the two countries' Comprehensive Strategic Partnership which builds on decades of cooperation and regional order building.
The strategic priorities include keeping the United States locked into the Western Pacific militarily and economically, collectively shaping Chinese behaviour and enmeshing both the United States and China in new multilateral rules that secure open and contestable markets.
Buttressing the multilateral economic order to create space for China, the United States and other large rising countries in South and Southeast Asia is a priority for Australia and Japan today. That requires strengthening and building a security architecture around the US alliance framework that embeds mutual assurances about the use of political power across the region. The US alliance framework is but one important aspect of security in our region. Security pursued without economic integration — which are inseparable in East Asia — is a limited and ephemeral security. For Southeast Asia, economic integration with its powerful neighbours is another important source of security. What is true for Southeast Asia is true for all East Asia.
The open multilateral trading system has been a source of economic resilience for Australia in the face of trade coercion. An architecture that ensures open contestable markets alongside security arrangements diffuses both economic and political power.
The idea of such a comprehensive security framework is exactly what inspired Japan's constructive and active diplomacy in the 1980s. It's an idea that has also been championed by leading strategic thinkers in Indonesia, a crucial partner in any effort to build stronger regional security and economic architecture.
No one country, however big, ought to dominate the Asia Pacific or Indo-Pacific region and multilateral principles can set terms of engagement that help to constrain the exercise of raw political power.
The pursuit of regional comprehensive security to create space for major powers to coexist in a multipolar world will require close cooperation with ASEAN, the United States and China, with leadership in ideas and diplomacy from Australia and Japan. Regional economic engagement will be needed from the United States and India to enmesh the Chinese economy more deeply in international markets that constrain the use of economic leverage by all major powers. Policy strategies based on this understanding of Australia's and Japan's joint regional interests will need a departure from current policy settings in Canberra and Tokyo.
The annual leadership summits between Australia and Japan are now entrenched. Before 2014 it was rare to have a Japanese prime minister visit Australia. The deep and broad relationship with trust and familiarity is all the more remarkable considering where it came from at the end of the Second World War.
Faced with the challenges of pandemic recovery, climate change and great power strategic competition, there is no room for complacency in the Australia–Japan bilateral relationship.
For both countries the energy and resources trade has underpinned a deepening strategic relationship but that economic relationship will need large-scale transformation as both accelerate decarbonising their economies.
With both countries now strategically so close and important to each other, do we understand each other and exactly what shapes and constrains policy choices in each of our capitals? Do Japanese people outside Kasumigaseki and Nagatacho, the bureaucratic and political districts in Tokyo, know the importance of Australia strategically for them? How many Australians in policy circles know what Kasumigaseki and Nagatacho are?
A large, renewed investment is needed in both countries for the next phase of the relationship. Deepening understanding, boosting exchanges and cooperation and building on the assets in the relationship can help deliver on more than the bilateral agenda. Getting Japan right will also help Australia get Asia right.
Australia and Japan are anchors of peace and prosperity in the world's most consequential region. Whether they remain so will depend on how they build and use the bilateral relationship, and that is still very much a future project.