Kishida and Morrison’s Romance Hopes to Deter China

  • Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met his Quad counterparts as early as last week.
  • The developments in Ukraine are changing the regional balance.
  • The two seek to further long-standing relations between their countries and counter China in the Pacific. 

Why are Kishida and Morrison in Romance?

Answer: AUKUS and Quad’s meeting deepened their long-standing ties and consolidated their role in the Indo-Pacific affairs.

As the People’s Republic of China gets more geopolitical clout in the Asia-Pacific region, Prime ministers Fuimo Kishida and Scott Morrison have moved to coordinate an answer, bolstering their security in the region in a pact signed in January. Additionally, the current events in Ukraine and the parallels that can be drawn to Taiwan is a paramount part of their agenda.

The two parties have found ways to foster an already well consolidated relationship between the countries. Former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott declared that Japan is Australia’s “closest friend in Asia“, elevating the former World War II aggressor past both China and Indonesia as he continued his regional charm offensive. Japan and Australia have agreed to promote the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership regional trade deals.

They are additionally engaged in joint development construction projects in the region with India, and have taken part in military drills, e.g., Australian forces have taken part in a military exercise in Japan, with Australian fighter jets deploying to the country for Bushido Guardian in 2019. In September 2021, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States signed a trilateral security pact, called AUKUS. 

Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe called for working with the AUKUS security partnership in areas such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and quantum technology. Both Morrison and Kishida play key roles in global alliances such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad, composed of the US, India, Japan and Australia).

Recently, the foreign ministers from the Quad met in Australia, where they supported the protection of national sovereignty and territorial integrity under international law implicitly expressing their concerns over China, which has become increasingly assertive in its territorial claims in the East and South China seas. Moreover, the Quad members reaffirmed their commitment to backing the efforts of nations to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Kishida and Morrison have common concerns over China’s strategy in the Asia-Pacific and especially with regards to Taiwan.  The two leaders have taken a harsh tone against Russia and will speed up a contingency plan as Beijing watches over the events in Ukraine and acts depending on the international community’s response.

What is Driving Kishida?

Answer: Kishida seeks to deter China’s military power as the invasion of Ukraine raises questions about Taiwan’s status.

Kishida, like his Australian counterpart, is seeking to counterbalance Chinese growth in the region as well as diversifying its sources of trade. China has become considerably more aggressive in Taiwan and threatens not just Japanese trade, but also the Senkaku Islands which Beijing has a historical claim to the islands. 

Since 1947, Japan’s constitution (article 9) has forbidden the formation of a traditional military force. The country has maintained only a Self Defense Force (SDF), the mission of which has been to protect the Japanese mainland. Nevertheless, the increasing role of China has led Tokyo to undertake a significant program of military modernization designed not only to improve its ability to defend the homeland and surrounding waters, but also to project military power to more distant regions.

Additionally, on July 13th 2021, they released their annual white paper, Defense of Japan 2021. For the first time, senior Japanese government officials expressed unusually strong statements stressing the importance of Taiwan’s security, which is driven largely by concerns over protecting Okinawa and a potential Chinese takeover over the disputed Senkaku Islands.

Therefore, a military cooperation with Australia provides Tokyo with an ally in the event its sovereignty comes under threat. Both leaders within the Quad format pledged their commitment to a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” region. Kishida is also concerned with North Korea’s recent flurry of missile tests.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has engendered further angst for Japan and Kishida given some similarities for Taiwan in China. Of particular importance is Beijing’s stance that, like Ukraine to Russia, Taiwan is a part of China. Although undoubtedly these events do not allude to an imminent invasion, Beijing is watching and taking notes on the US and EU response to the invasion to assess opportunities it may have in Taiwan. That being said, the People’s Republic of China is certainly aware that the US’s commitment to Taiwan is superior to that of Ukraine.

On the 2nd of March 2022, the delegation of former U.S. top security and defense officials was sent by President Joe Biden and made an official visit to Taiwan. Kishida will aim to maintain that difference and build upon the relationship with the ‘Quad’ countries and Australia in particular, due to Australia’s strategic ties with the US.

Finally, a romance with Morrison grows at a time where Japan seeks to reduce its economic dependence on Xi. China is Japan’s biggest export destination, accounting for 22% of overall share. Trade between China and Japan is at its highest and a potential clash or change within Beijing in the South China Sea, the Japanese economy and energy supplies would be significantly hampered. Japan is also taking an active role to enhance more efficient natural gas value chain businesses in the region.

Australia, therefore, becomes a potentially critical partner for Japan, providing key energy supplies and effectively diversifying its energy related exports from China. For instance, Australia and Japan have launched what is claimed to be the world’s first brown coal-to-hydrogen project.

What is Driving Morrison?

Answer: Morrison is changing Australia’s vision towards China from friends to foes, trade war with China is renewing Australia’s role in the region. 

Australia established diplomatic relations with China in 1972. Relations with Beijing have been consistently maintained through the broader scope of the relationship. A range of well-established channels and key influencers have ensured ongoing bilateral communication and engagement. Nevertheless, Canberra’s partnership with Japan gained leverage and both parties have been pivotal in the promotion of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership regional trade deals. 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has, in the recent past, sought to deepen Australia-Japan relations by considerably expanding their security alliances and strengthening the security commitment between the two allies. On January, 6th 2022,  Morrison and Kishida signed the Reciprocal Access Agreement. This agreement allows the troops of one country to enter the other for training and other purposes.

Recently, the Australian Defense Department said that a Chinese navy ship fired a laser at one of its surveillance aircraft, putting the lives of the crew in danger. Morrison cannot counter China by its own, therefore working with a key ally as Japan, holding the same core geostrategic interests provides Australia with an extra leverage in both economic and military capabilities.

Moreover, Morrison is undoubtedly concerned by Chinese answers over a free investigation of SARS-CoV-2 origin and China’s answer. Beijing put some barriers to a number of significant Australian exports. This has changed Canberra’s perception of China from friends to foes. Consequently, Morrison has sought to leverage and scale up its relationship with Tokyo to finance the development of projects such as an internet cable in Oceania to minimize Chinese investments, enabling Canberra and Tokyo to compete with Chinese investments in the region.

Reducing economic dependence on China and a tougher tone with Beijing, therefore, is becoming an increasingly pertinent part of Morrison’s agenda to present a united front both domestically and abroad. For instance, the Labor Party, the main opposition party, has stood with Morrison’s government over calling for an investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Internationally, this tougher stance over China, has allowed Morrison0s government to confidently coordinate with other Asian-Pacific states.

In 2020, China was the biggest partner of Australia’s exports, accounting for 42% of the total. Tensions and trade war with China in 2020 increased Australia’s apprehension toward China. Canberra banned China Huawei’s 5G rollout over security fears. However, Morrison’s policies have helped boost Australia’s exports and find new trade partners. For instance, when Beijing banned Australia’s coal and sought Russian and Indonesian coal, Canberra sentits coal to India, Japan and South Korea.This trade decoupling with China has opened Australia’s new diplomatic doors elsewhere and Japan has been key.

Australia has historically been the largest donor to the Pacific island states, but in recent years, Beijing has increased its clout in this area. Consequently, Morisson has increased cooperation with the Pacific islands states, including providing COVID-19 vaccines before others could offer support. 

What is Kishida Doing?

Answer: The Japanese PM has sought to deepen ties with Australia to protect supply chains and secure the Asia-Pacific region.

Kishida’s unconventional rise to power implies that domestic political stability is a precondition of his political continuity. Undoubtedly, one of his key pressure points is East Asian Security. Well before Kishida held Japan’s top office, Tokyo recognised Australia’s key strategic role in its security policy which culminated with the 2+2 Ministerial Meeting. The agreement stipulated the US pivotal engagement role to regional peace and stability and  both parties confirmed a suite of recommendations as a means of elevating bilateral security and defense cooperation to a new level over time. Kishida, at the time, was Japan’s foreign minister and played a pivotal role in bolstering these diplomatic ties.

Moreover, the pandemic has made evident the importance of securing supply chains in the Asia-Pacific region that Japan has yielded in cooperation with Australia and also with India. Plus, both Kishida and Morrison have cooperated in economic projects in third countries, e.g., both countries are working on joint development construction projects in the region with India. Finally, through the consolidation of the security apparatus between Australia, India, Japan and the US, Kishida and Morrison can assume a greater role in regional security dynamics that is in the best interest of both powers. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Bolstering a strong Indo-Pacific alliance that can counter China will be paramount to avoid further regional and global escalation.

Both Tokyo and Canberra have had recent tensions with Beijing, e.g., Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked to investigate the pandemic and Beijing put some barriers to a number of significant Australian exports. The ability of Morrison and Kishida to take countermeasures has been calculated by their important trade ties with China and sought to seek new commercial partners and engage in new commercial projects in the region. For instance,  Australia, the United States and Japan have announced they will jointly fund the construction of an undersea cable to boost internet access in Nauru, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Trade between Japan and Australia has grown over time and for instance, Australia has moved to strengthen its position as a supplier of clean hydrogen to Japan with the launch of a $150mn trade programme. After the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 and China’s role in the region has only bolstered Japan-Australia relationship and has even deepened their military cooperation. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised concern and analysis about what that might mean for the future states of Taiwan, which will likely be a cornerstone of Morrison and Kishida plans. The current status quo and the regional peace is very fragile, and China’s next steps and policies regarding Taiwan on the same moment as the current invasion of Ukraine adds an extra layer of caution. As a result, AUKUS can be key to deterring China.

Additionally, the “Quad” alliance is another piece that can counterbalance Beijing and its power in the Asia-Pacific area. As time passes and frictioned interests become more latent in the region, the cost of any miscalculation increases. Therefore, Japan-Australia growing ties will be key to the balance of power and alliances in the region.