Strong Australia- Japan ties may cast over China’s global ambitions in Indo-Pacific

The growing closeness between Australia and Japan, which are on the flanks of China’s backyard the South China Sea and the East China Sea, has alarmed the mandarins in Beijing.

The recent Australia-Japan ‘2+ 2’ Foreign & Defence Ministerial meeting that stressed the ‘importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait’ has set alarm bells ringing in Beijing, ET has learnt. The development is significant in the wake of major players in the Indo Pacific such as Japan, India, and Australia joining the US-led alliance to counter China in its backyard. The stronger cooperation between Australia and Japan can become an obstacle in the way of China’s rise even if the US leaves the scene.

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi during a virtual discussion with Australian counterparts Marise Payne and Peter Dutton expressed “serious concerns” about the situation in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, and “strongly opposed” unilateral attempts by China to change the status quo and to violate the universal Coast Guard rules, ET has reliably learnt. Moreover, the ministers broached issues like stability in Taiwan and human rights violations in Xinjiang province and Hong Kong— all sensitive to Beijing.

Japan has been seeking to form broader coalitions including with Europe besides India to counter balance China’s aggression.

Japan and Australia also exhibited strong position during the ‘2+2’ meeting by demanding “urgent, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang” for independent international observers as well as by underscoring the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

As expected, China protested saying Japan and Australia were “maliciously slandering and attacking China.” China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin asked these countries to “stop meddling in China’s internal affairs and stop undermining regional peace and stability.”

The growing influence of anti-China grouping in the Indo-Pacific region, especially when it is led by the US, may have a negative bearing on Beijing’s plans of expanding its influence the world over. China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI) is often criticised by many as a clandestine programme for the expansion of military bases through economic coercion of poor countries.

The “China threat” shared by Japan and Australia revolves mainly around two points — Defence and trade. China has already warned Australia of a ballistic-missiles attack for raking up the Taiwan issue.

Calling the Australian military “weak”, the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times said “Australia is within range of China’s conventional warhead-equipped DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile.”

Japan is apprehensive about Beijing’s plans since there have been several incursions into waters around the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands by the China Coast Guard. China has laid claim on the island, calling it Diaoyu island. Maritime Expert Carl Schuster said China has been using maritime militia to expand influence over the South China sea and seize islands. The militia force is backed by China’s Navy. This has led Japan and Australia to boost the defence ties to counter the “coercive or destabilizing” behaviour of China.

There has been natural interest among like-minded countries which want to balance China to look at the US. And the QUAD and G7 are among the groups that serve the purpose. However, Japan and Australia have decided to build a stronger alliance as they worry that the US may back out due to domestic pressure and may weaken their deterrence capabilities.

China has been trying to weaken or disrupt the US-led international order, which it deems necessary for its rise.

During the ‘2+2’ meeting, the Australian and Japanese ministers sought engagement and cooperation with like-minded countries for “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” even as they stressed strengthening bilateral defence ties. They called for “practical” defence and security cooperation. They green-signalled enhancing the interoperability of the forces of both countries, and conducted more complex and sophisticated bilateral exercises, including air-to-air refuelling. They also discussed economic security issues, such as technology and supply chains, ET has learnt. India-Japan-Australia launched a resilient supply chain initiative last year to diversify supply chain initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region.

Japan also backed Australia against economic coercion by China saying the trade sanction “undermines the rules-based international system.” China has imposed higher tariffs on Australian goods for seeking an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, which may have cost Australia USD 20 billion.

Australia was dependent on China for its economic growth as the exports to China accounted for 40 percent of its total exports. Now Australia can beat China’s interdependence by collaborating with Japan as the ‘2+2’ pact envisages strengthening the cooperation to address economic challenges to support a free, open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific.

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