Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott visits Seoul National Cemetery on April 8 during his trip to South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images)
SYDNEY — Closer defense ties between Japan and Australia should not raise concerns in regional superpower China, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Tuesday, after sealing a major free trade and security deal with Tokyo.
Canberra and Tokyo struck the agreement Monday to enhance trade and security ties, including joint development of defense equipment, elevating the bilateral relationship to a new level.
Abbott told national radio in Australia that he was taking no side in territorial disputes between China and other nations, and the growing relationship with Japan did not target anyone else.
“It’s not against any specific country and as far as I am concerned — as far as just about every country is concerned — what we want to see is more democracy, more freedom, more respect for the rule of law,” he said when asked about China.
“We say there should be no change to the status quo, which is brought about by force or by the threat of force,” he said.
Abbott noted there was already a high degree of defense cooperation between Australia and Japan, which is embroiled in territorial disputes with China.
Australian and Japanese defense forces hold exercises together and Japan has previously purchased some Australian defense equipment, including Bushmaster armored infantry transport vehicles, he said.
“We want to see more inter-operability between our militaries, we want to see more exercises between our militaries, we want to see over time more significant intelligence co-operation,” the prime minister told ABC.
On Tuesday Australia was also set to sign a free trade pact with South Korea following four years of negotiations. After Seoul, Abbott will head to China on Wednesday.
Long-awaited trade deal
Monday’s agreement to boost security cooperation came after Japan last week loosened a self-imposed ban on weapons exports in a move which unnerved China.
Japan and Australia announced Monday a “substantive agreement” on a long-awaited free-trade deal, in a rare opening of Japan’s protected markets.
In Tokyo, Abbott said it was the first time Japan had negotiated a comprehensive economic partnership agreement or free trade deal with a major economy.
He said the deal marked “truly an historic occasion for both of our countries”, with the security deal including joint development of defense equipment.
In Japan, the mass-selling Yomiuri Shimbun welcomed the security deal, saying it would dovetail well with the recent relaxation of strict rules banning arms exports and “would lead to progress in defense technology and the curbing of development costs.”
It made no specific reference to tensions between Tokyo and Beijing, which have been high for almost two years, but said “the agreement between ... two allies of the United States will contribute to the stability of the Asia Pacific region as a whole.”
Australian media hailed the overall agreement as a trade breakthrough, but some highlighted the sensitivities involved in defense matters.
The Australian Financial Review noted that the defense deal had been embarked on “under the radar of a trade deal”.
“Closer security ties have been the real growth area in the relationship during the long seven years of trade negotiations,” the daily noted.
Peter Hartcher writing in the Sydney Morning Herald said China’s assertiveness was driving US allies in the region nearer to Washington and to each other.
“Even on a trip where Abbott visits China, he is working with the other two nations on his itinerary in a search for a common security against the rising China risk. It’s a jungle out there.”