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Japan, Australia leaders eye stronger defense ties as China looms large

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hold a bilateral meeting alongside the Quad leaders' summit, among the United States, Japan, India and Australia, at the Akasaka Palace state guest house in Tokyo, on May 24, 2022. (Issei Kato/Pool Photo via AP)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and new Australian leader Anthony Albanese agreed Tuesday to deepen bilateral defense and security cooperation, as both nations confront the challenges posed by the rise of an assertive China in the Indo-Pacific region.

    In their first in-person meeting since Albanese was sworn in as Australia's prime minister on Monday, the two leaders strongly condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine and shared the view that the crisis should never be replicated in the Indo-Pacific, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said.

    Deepening cooperation with Pacific island nations was also on the agenda after China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, an arrangement that reportedly enables the deployment of Chinese troops. Kishida and Albanese shared concerns about the agreement, the ministry said.

    Albanese visited Japan for a summit with his U.S., Japanese and Indian counterparts under the "Quad" framework, fresh out of an election win that made possible the first change of government in nine years in Australia.

    The newly elected prime minister, who expects Canberra's relations with China to remain "difficult," reassured the other Quad members in Tokyo that his government is committed to the Quad group that seeks to maintain the rules-based order in the region.

    "As the regional security environment grows increasingly severe, it has become all the more necessary for Japan and Australia to further our special strategic partnership and realize a free and open Indo-Pacific with allies and like-minded nations," Kishida told Albanese during their meeting.

    Japan and Australia have forged closer ties in recent years as China flexes its military muscle. Under Albanese's predecessor Scott Morrison, Tokyo and Canberra signed a reciprocal access agreement in January intended to facilitate the deployment of their troops to each other for joint drills and relief operations.

    During the 75-minute meeting, Kishida and Albanese confirmed they will speed up the domestic ratification process.

    Albanese told Kishida that Australia's foreign policy has not fundamentally changed with the new government.

    "I see areas of cooperation as increasing in defense and national security issues," Albanese said, adding that he sees an "enormous opportunity" for more joint work on liquefied natural gas and green hydrogen.

    The two nations share concerns about an assertive China. Beijing continues to send ships to waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, an uninhabited islet group controlled by Japan but claimed by China.

    Australia, for its part, saw its relations with major trading partner China worsen over a range of issues, including trade, human rights and COVID-19 under Morrison, who took a hard-line stance toward Beijing.

    Kishida and Albanese stressed the importance of strong networks among allies and like-minded nations given the current environment, and the Japanese leader expressed support for a security partnership known as AUKUS among Australia, Britain and the United States, according to the ministry.

    Asked about the possibility of Japan joining the AUKUS arrangement earlier in the day after the Quad summit, Kishida said in a press conference that Japan does not have plans to do so.

    On the economic front, Japan and Australia have joined the Indo-Pacific economic framework launched Monday by U.S. President Joe Biden to counterbalance the rise of China by promoting fair trade, resilient supply chains and decarbonization efforts.

    Kishida and Albanese agreed they will counter economic coercion -- a phrase apparently directed at China -- and jointly encourage the United States to return to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership following its withdrawal in 2017, the ministry said.

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