MELBOURNE, Australia — Australia and Japan have signed a reciprocal access agreement to make it easier for their respective militaries to visit each other’s countries for exercises.

The agreement was signed Thursday during a virtual conference between Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida, which took place in lieu of an official visit to Australia by the latter. That scheduled visit was was canceled due to a surge in COVID-19 cases in Australia.

This is the first such agreement Japan has signed with a country other than the United States. The U.S. has a so-called status of forces agreement with Japan, which allows American forces to be stationed throughout the Asian nation’s territory.

The new bilateral agreement will “underpin greater and more complex practical engagement between the Australian Defence Force and the Japanese Self-Defence Forces,” according to a statement released by Morrison on Wednesday.

“This treaty will be a statement of our two nations’ commitment to work together in meeting the shared strategic security challenges we face and to contribute to a secure and stable Indo-Pacific,” the statement read.

Both countries had begun negotiating the reciprocal access agreement in 2014, according to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, talks stalled over jurisdictional concerns that could see Australian troops subject to the death penalty in Japan.

Japanese news outlet Nikkei recently reported the two sides agreed that Japan will not have jurisdiction in cases involving Australian troops carrying out their official duties, but crimes outside that context will be subject to Japanese law.

The agreement will streamline both countries’ complex entry procedures for foreign defense forces and equipment, which have become increasingly onerous as interactions increase, partly driven by growing concerns about China’s military modernization efforts and regional activities.

Australian and Japanese forces in recent years have joined for joint and multilateral military exercises, such as the biennial Talisman Sabre drill in Australia, which began in 2015. Australian forces have also taken part in a military exercise in Japan, with Australian fighter jets deploying to the country for Bushido Guardian in 2019. The 2021 iteration was canceled due to the pandemic.

Japanese Mitsubishi F-2 fighter jets have been scheduled to conduct refueling trials with Australia’s Airbus KC-30 tankers since 2019, although scheduling issues and the spread of COVID-19 saw that plan repeatedly pushed back.

Australia and Japan already have deals in place governing defense equipment transfers and intelligence sharing, along with an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement to enable sharing of fuel and other supplies.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.

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