Japan, Australia sign landmark defense pact

By Isabel Reynolds TOKYO, Reuters

Japan and Australia signed a groundbreaking defense pact on Tuesday that the leaders of both countries stressed was not aimed at reining in China, but the road ahead for a two-way trade deal looked rougher.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister John Howard signed off on the agreement, Japan’s first such pact with a country other than the United States, after talks in Tokyo.

“The signing of the joint declaration on security and cooperation is a further milestone in the march of a relationship that really began in earnest 50 years ago,” Howard told a joint news conference.

Stressing the agreement did not diminish ties of either country with the their key security ally the United States, Howard said: “It should not be seen as being antagonistic to anybody in the region.

“It certainly is not. China should not see this declaration in an antagonistic light.”

Some Australians still have bitter feelings about Japan because of World War II.

“We all have an obligation to recall the past but also to look to the future…. That is the spirit I have brought to the relationship of Japan and Australia,” Howard said.

A Japanese official said later that Howard had raised the issue of Abe’s recent comments denying the Japanese government directly forced women to become wartime sex slaves for Japanese soldiers, but said the Australian leader had welcomed Abe’s latest remarks expressing sympathy for the women and standing by a 1993 apology for their suffering.

Japan has in recent years pushed the limits of its U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution, and Abe wants to rewrite the document to clarify the legal status of its military and facilitate a bigger global security role.

The four-part defense agreement sets priorities for security cooperation in such areas as counter-terrorism, maritime security, border protection and disaster relief.

It also sets out shared regional concerns.

The agreement comes after North Korea shook the region with nuclear and missile tests last year and China shot down one of its own satellites in January, sparking increased concern over Beijing’s rising military might.

Abe, who earlier said the deal was not aimed at reining in China, stressed it would help stabilize the Asia-Pacific region.

“The strengthening of our relations, particularly in the field of security, will contribute to stability and security not only for Japan and Australia but also for the region and the world,” Abe told the news conference.

Australia has said the pact may lead to intelligence sharing and the participation of Japanese troops in exercises on Australian soil, although both countries have pointed out that it will not be a mutual defense treaty like the one Tokyo has with Washington.

The two countries already have a history of military cooperation. Howard hosted a ceremony at his Tokyo hotel on Tuesday to thank a group of uniformed Japanese troops representing those who served with the Australian forces on a reconstruction mission in southern Iraq.

As the United States’ most loyal allies in the Asia-Pacific, both countries sent troops to Iraq, while the three countries have already tightened their ties through regular dialogue.

Japan withdrew its ground forces last year, leaving air force personnel based in Kuwait who are still transporting supplies to the U.S.-led coalition.

Tokyo and Canberra are also to start talks on a free trade agreement next month, but the talks look set to be sticky given the potential impact on Japan’s politically powerful farm sector.

The trade deal would “have major merits in that it will ensure a stable supply to Japan of resources, energy and food,” Abe said. “But we both have to be mindful of sensitivities. For Japan, we must attach importance to agriculture.”