Australia balancing Japan and China ties

Daniel McCulloch
·2-min read

The Morrison government has declared it stands ready to rebuild respectful and mutually beneficial relations with China.

But the fractured relationship is set to be tested again after Australia signed a defence treaty with Japan.

The Reciprocal Access Agreement will see Japan and Australia use each other's military bases and conduct joint exercises in the East and South China Seas.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says China should not fear the signing of the landmark treaty, despite being a strategic rival of Japan.

"This is a significant evolution of this relationship, but there is no reason for that to cause any concern elsewhere in the region," he said.

"I think it adds to the stability of the region, which is a good thing."

The agreement needs to be ratified by parliament.

If finalised, it would be the first pact by Japan to allow a foreign military presence on its soil after a similar 1960 accord with the United States.

Mr Morrison and Japanese counterpart Yoshihide Suga signed the pact in Tokyo.

Mr Suga said Japan and Australia were "special strategic partners" committed to freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, working together to achieve peace and stability in the region.

In a joint statement, the two leaders expressed serious concerns about the situation in the South and East China Seas and strong opposition to militarising disputed islands, without identifying Beijing.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg will try to reset trade relations with China during a keynote address to business leaders on Wednesday.

His efforts are being reinforced by Trade Minister Simon Birmingham.

But Senator Birmingham and his cabinet colleagues have been ignored by their Chinese counterparts for months as diplomatic relations continue to deteriorate.

The minister said Australia had reached out at every possible level to make contact with Chinese authorities.

"It is fanciful to suggest that we haven't sought and tried pretty much every possible or conceivable avenue in terms of expressing that willingness," Senator Birmingham told ABC radio.

Senator Birmingham said Australia's door remained open but China could not be forced to come to the table.

"That's when I say the ball is in their court, it is, because only they can decide to take that call or have those meetings," he said.

China has launched various trade strikes against valuable Australian exports as diplomatic tensions sour over the coronavirus, human rights abuses and foreign interference accusations.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said despite the sour relations, China was still buying Australian grain, meat, natural resources and wine.

"China needs us just as much as we need China as far as trade is concerned," he told the ABC.