Japan and Australia sign defense pact

Japan and Australia signed a defense pact Tuesday, committing the two nations to cooperation on military, antiterrorism, and security matters.

Bloomberg reports that the defense pact, signed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister John Howard, will partner the two countries "on disaster relief, border security and fighting terrorism," and will include cooperation and personnel exchange between the Japanese and Australian militaries.

The declaration "represents a new dimension to our relationship and should not be seen as being antagonistic to anyone in the region," Howard said at a press conference with Abe in Tokyo. "This will not contribute to an arms race or a military build-up in the region."

Japan and Australia each have separate security treaties with the U.S. Today's agreement called for strengthening cooperation among the three countries, which started annual security talks in 2002.

The pact is Japan's first permanent military arrangement since World War II with a nation other than the US.

The Asia Times reports that the "historic joint security declaration" may be "partly aimed at diluting the widespread public impression in both countries that their leaders focus too much on their alliance with the US."

[The security pact] specifically calls for close intelligence sharing and joint military exercises for disaster relief and United Nations peacekeeping operations. The document also stipulates the establishment of so-called "two plus two" ministerial security talks comprising foreign and defense ministers from the two countries, similar to those each already has with the US.

The two leaders also pledged in the joint declaration that they will coordinate policies over North Korea and cooperate in dealing with the threat of the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Japan and Australia are active participants in the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative aimed at preventing the smuggling of such weapons, missiles and parts.

An action plan on measures for cooperating on disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, and maritime and aviation security, as well as cracking down on international crime such as drug trafficking, was part of the deal. Nor were economics forgotten. Abe and Howard had agreed during telephone conversations last December to launch negotiations on a free-trade agreement; on Tuesday, they agreed to expedite those negotiations.

The BBC notes that the pact may be seen as a response to the growing military power of China, though both Mr. Abe and Mr. Howard denied that was the case. They stressed that the treaty is not a mutual defense pact, and both men underscored the importance of their nations' economic and diplomatic ties to China.

Nonetheless, Chinese news agency Xinhua reports that Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said that he hopes that the Australia-Japan pact will take Chinese concerns into account.

"China pursues the road of peaceful development. The modernization of our armed forces is defensive in nature," he said. "We hope the relevant countries can objectively understand China's foreign and defense policies," he added.

When commenting on statements by the Australian and Japanese leaders that their security pact is not aimed at China, Qin said "we hope what they said is true."

"China will not invade or threaten other countries, so we have nothing to fear. We remain unperturbed," Qin said.

However, Australia's ABC News reports that Beijing has complained that it was not well-informed about the defense talks, which has prompted criticism of Australia's ruling Liberal Party government by the opposition Labor Party.

[Opposition spokesman for foreign affairs Robert McClelland] says a Labor Government would have been more transparent with China while negotiating the pact.

"You would keep them informed during the course of those negotiations to relieve any anxiety they may have, and indeed, historically, perhaps justifiably have," he said.

"I think it literally could have been done more diplomatically."

However, The Australian reports that Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said Chinese interests had been taken into account, and that Australia has "never had a better relationship than we have with China today, but that doesn't mean China has a veto on every policy that Australia has."

The Australian newspaper The Age writes that despite the defense pact, Abe still faces criticism from Howard over Abe's comments that there is no evidence of Japanese forces in WWII having forced women into sexual servitude as "comfort women." Howard called the practice "an appalling episode in a tragic period in the history of the world."

Mr Abe tried to quell the controversy last Sunday by reiterating his support for the 1993 Kono statement of apology.

Mr Howard yesterday welcomed the reaffirmation of the 1993 statement, but rejected any attempt to parse definitions.

"There can be no quibbling about what happened ... Any suggestion there was not coercion is completely repudiated by me and it has been completely repudiated by other Allied countries," he said.

The Age article notes that Australian women were among those forced to become "comfort women" during the war.

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