18 November 2020
On Tuesday, Scott Morrison and Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga reached an in-principle agreement on a Japan–Australia defence pact, which will allow closer military cooperation on exercises and shared use of resources, including bases and fuel.
The agreement came as Morrison made his first overseas trip since the outbreak of the pandemic to meet Suga in Tokyo. This made him the first foreign leader to meet the new prime minister, who took over from Shinzō Abe in September.
The deepening of ties between Japan and Australia has led to one of the region’s most consistent and significant new bonds in the past decade.
Japan’s role as a foreign investor in Australia has expanded, and the two countries regularly cooperate on development aid projects to offset China’s growing influence.
Their discussions were also expected to cover joint efforts to encourage the United States to re-engage in Asia under Joe Biden and further cooperation in South-East Asia.
A South-East Asia ‘step-up’
Australia has stepped up its engagement with South-East Asia, announcing boosts to aid to assist with some of the region’s challenges, including its recovery from COVID-19.
The move will ease concerns that the focus of Australia’s development program has shifted from South-East Asia to the South Pacific, just as China has increased its presence in both regions. Last month’s federal budget included additional spending of A$304 million over two years for the Pacific and A$60 million for the higher growth and more populous South-East Asian region.
But following the government’s new spending commitments, it now says its overall aid to South-East Asia is A$1 billion a year. Conveniently, this is about the same as the official figure for Australian aid to the Pacific, which is A$1.067 billion.
The government’s key announcements included a strategic partnership with Thailand, a A$1.5 billion loan to Indonesia and a A$232 million aid program for the Mekong River region.
Australia’s new agreement with Thailand may be surprising, coming, as it does, amid fears of a Thai crackdown on pro-democracy protests. But it reflects Australia’s continuing close engagement with Thai officials on regional issues.
As Indonesia experiences a financial downturn as a result of the pandemic, Australia was expected to offer a stand-by loan, similar to the emergency assistance it offered during the 2008 global financial crisis. But providing an actual loan to help support Indonesia’s budget goes beyond that.
The Mekong program shows that Australia has concerns about tensions in the region, which faces growing challenges, including competition for water resources. It also shows that Australia believes it has valuable expertise to offer.
The government also announced it would provide assistance for infrastructure, technology and maritime projects and would spend a substantial A$45 million to help some poorer countries, including Laos and Myanmar, implement the newly signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade deal. And this is all in addition to previously announced assistance with the distribution of a coronavirus vaccine in the region.
While Australia was the first external partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1974, its engagement with the ten members of the group has mostly been bilateral. The new measures underline that Australia has economic and security interests in supporting the stability of the region as a whole. So, it needs an engagement program that can be deployed in each country but is planned from a regional perspective.
Scott Morrison’s plan to build stronger ties with PNG prime minister James Marape by watching the State of Origin with him in Port Moresby has fallen victim to a leadership struggle.
Morrison was forced to cancel his visit to Australia’s nearest neighbour this week due to the surprise suspension of the PNG parliament ahead of a likely vote of no confidence in Marape.
Australia has increased its investment in Papua New Guinea in recent years to fend off growing Chinese influence, providing direct loans to finance the PNG budget and investing in infrastructure projects. More help for the budget and regional airlines was planned this week.
As a former colony of Australia, Papua New Guinea is arguably Canberra’s first international affairs obligation. So, the possible turnover of a promising new leader, which has cast doubt on the passage of the budget, is a significant risk for Australia, especially after its recent investments.
Whatever the outcome of the leadership struggle, it remains positive for PNG–Australia relations that Papua New Guinea persists with democratic conventions despite all its social and economic challenges, unlike some peer countries.