Australian and Japanese fighter jets will carry out joint military exercises for the first time this year, as the two nations boost their defence co-operation.
The deepening of defence ties comes amid China’s increasingly aggressive defence posture in Asia and continuing tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Malcolm Turnbull yesterday warned world leaders against accepting a lull in North Korea’s missile program in the lead-up to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics as an indication that Pyongyang was serious about ending its missile program, while scepticism is rising in Japan over talks between the rogue state and South Korea.
The Prime Minister arrived in Tokyo yesterday for a visit focused on defence and trade relations, as well as the nuclear threat posed by North Korea.
Mr Turnbull and Mr Abe last night announced the new military exercises, which will be held between the Japanese Air Self-Defence Force and the Royal Australian Air Force in Japan later this year.
“The two leaders directed their respective ministers of defence to pursue even deeper and broader defence co-operation in 2018, including exercises, operations, capacity building, navy, army and air force visits, and further co-operation on defence equipment,” the two leaders said in a joint statement.
After a warning from Australia’s International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells on China’s growing influence on Pacific nations, Mr Abe and Mr Turnbull pledged to step up “bilateral co-ordination” in the region, and increasingly help other countries to carry out maritime law enforcement.
The leaders’ statement, released after a bilateral meeting, said a ministerial economic dialogue would be set up between the two country’s trade ministers.
Ahead of his meeting with Mr Abe, Mr Turnbull hinted that the reconfigured Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement could be signed by March, and may proceed without all 11 countries remaining in the deal.
Mr Turnbull’s arrival in Tokyo yesterday came as Japanese media reported that officials were assessing contingency plans for the maritime evacuation of Japanese and US citizens in South Korea in the event that airports were closed. It also coincided with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warning Pyongyang over military action, with no indication North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was considering ending his nation’s missile program.
Recent developments between North and South Korea officials, including a meeting at Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone where the countries agreed to march together at the Olympics, has been met with scepticism in Tokyo. Senior officials remain concerned about handing concessions to North Korea, without restrictions on its missile program.
Speaking alongside a Patriot missile-defence system at the Narashino base outside Tokyo, Mr Turnbull said Pyongyang’s participation in the Olympics would not lead to denuclearisation on the peninsula and the North had a history of misleading the world.
“They have a long habit of ratcheting up militarisation and then going into a lull for a while, trying to persuade people they are changing their ways, changing nothing, and then ratcheting up again,” Mr Turnbull said. “We need to maintain the pressure of the strong economic sanctions.”
Asked whether talks over the Olympics could lead to negotiations with the North over its missile program, he said: “I don’t think anyone imagines North Korea participating in the Winter Olympics is going to lead to denuclearisation of the peninsula.”
Mr Tillerson this week upped the ante with North Korea, delivering strong comments at the “Vancouver Group” meeting in Canada discussing the international approach to the Korean conflict. “I think we all need to be very sober and clear-eyed about the current situation,” the US Secretary of State said. “We have to recognise the threat is growing. If North Korea does not choose the path of engagement, of discussion, negotiations, then they themselves will trigger an option.”
Asked whether he agreed with these comments, Mr Turnbull said military options should remain on the table. He said North Korea needed to show “real movement” towards denuclearisation. “That’s where negotiations can begin in earnest,” the Prime Minister said.
The Japan Self-Defence Force deployed the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 surface-to-air system to several US bases in Japan in August after a North Korean missile flew over Hokkaido.
Maintaining the current rules of international trade was also a major focus of the visit, with Mr Turnbull suggesteding the TPP deal could be signed without all eleven countries left at the negotiating table when the United States pulled out.
“Prime Minister Abe and I are personally committed to having this deal signed and sealed by March,” he said.
“Our strong preference is for all eleven countries to join the first
wave. But our focus is on bringing the new TPP agreement into force as soon as possible with those who are ready to move.”
Trade Ministers from the eleven TPP nations will meet in Chile in March.
Australian officials believe if any country was to walk away it would be Canada, but they do not expect this to happen at this stage. There this still understood to be a level of frustration with Canada among most TPP nations, particularly Mexico – a country also involved in NAFTA renegotiations.
A government source said it was unclear what Mexico might do if Canada were to pull out.
Mr Turnbull said on Thursday that the recent World Trade Organisation meeting in Buenos Aires was “challenging”. At the meeting, the United States attempted to push President Donald Trump’s fair trade agenda and attempted to block the issuing of a traditional concluding statement. With the US accused of blocking the appointment of new appellate judges to the WTO, Mr Turnbull emphasised the importance of the dispute settlement functions of the organisation.
On a visit to the Tokyo subway yesterday afternoon, Mr Turnbull discussed counter terrorism and anti-crime measures in crowded places with local authorities. Australian officials observed a range of including the use of passenger exit and entry gates to regulate how passengers board subway carriages.