Turnbull, Abe Underscore Defense Ties With Japan Base Visit

(Bloomberg) -- Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visited a paratrooper base and is set to attend a meeting of Japan’s National Security Council on a trip Thursday to Tokyo that emphasizes the two countries’ determination to strengthen defense ties -- even at the risk of irritating China.

The two nations are seeking to seal a "visiting forces" agreement that would make it simpler for their militaries to take part in drills in either country. This would augment bilateral pacts agreed over the past decade on security, military equipment and supplies. Some analysts have termed the relationship a "quasi-alliance."

Limited by its pacifist constitution, Japan has long relied on the U.S., its only treaty ally, to deter growing regional threats. Abe has sought to loosen the restrictions on his country’s military and build a network of security relationships with other U.S. allies and regional powers that share Japan’s concerns about North Korea and China.

“Japan and Australia are increasingly looking to each other to diversify their security partnerships and find common ground,” said Bates Gill, a professor in security studies at Sydney’s Macquarie University. “With concerns in both Canberra and Tokyo about China’s intentions in the region, the two leaders have a lot to talk about.”

‘Threat to Peace’

The new pact would be the first of its kind for Japan, which has a Status of Forces Agreement that governs the U.S. troops permanently stationed in the country, but which does not envisage Japanese troops visiting the U.S.

"As we work more closely together, we make the region safer," Turnbull told reporters after visiting the Narashino Self-Defense Forces base, where he said he saw an "extraordinary display of great special operations capabilities." Australia was looking forward to holding more joint military training exercises with Japan, he said.

A commentary earlier this month in China’s Global Times, a nationalist tabloid affiliated with the People’s Daily, criticized the Japan-Australia security relationship as a "threat to peace."

The visit could also be a bid to show that military ties between the two countries have recovered from a 2016 blow, when Australia picked France over Japan to supply it with a new fleet of submarines. Turnbull visited the base alongside Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a highly unusual honor for a foreign leader and the two are set for a formal summit meeting later in the day.

"We want to use this visit to deepen the special strategic partnership across a broad range of fields," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo. "In the summit, we are planning to discuss bilateral security, defense and economic issues, as well as the urgent problem of North Korea."

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