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Australia, Japan to bolster defence ties amid China's rise

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TOKYO (AP): Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is in Japan to hold talks with his Japanese counterpart, Yoshihide Suga, to bolster defence ties between the two US allies to counter China's growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region amid a transition in American leadership.

The two countries are close to concluding a Reciprocal Access Agreement, a legal framework to allow their troops to visit each other's countries and conduct training and joint operations.

Morrison and Suga are to hold talks later Tuesday and may conclude the deal. They are also expected to discuss the Coronavirus and the economy, Japanese officials said.

If signed, it will be Japan's first such agreement since the 1960 status of forces agreement with the United States, which set bases for about 50,000 American troops to operate in and around Japan under the Japan-US security pact.

Japan is committed to maintain and deepen its 60-year-old alliance with the US as the cornerstone of Japanese diplomacy and security, but has in recent years sought to complement its regional defence by stepping up cooperation with others, especially Australia, amid China's growing maritime activity that has spread from the East and South China Seas and beyond.

Japan still sticks to self-defence and bans first strikes under its postwar pacifist constitution, but has bolstered its defence role and spending under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Abe pushed Japan's military cooperation and weapons compatibility with the US as it increasingly works alongside the US troops and bolstered purchases of costly American stealth fighters and other arsenals.

Suga, who took office in mid-September after Abe resigned due to ill health problems, is carrying on his predecessor's diplomatic and security policies.

Japan considers Australia as a semi-ally and the two countries signed a defence cooperation agreement in 2007, a first for Japan other than the US. The two countries agreed on the sharing of military supplies in 2013, expanding it in 2017 to include munitions after Japan eased restrictions on arms equipment transfers.

Japan has initiated the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" vision of economic and security cooperation as a counter to China's influence, and recently hosted foreign ministerial talks among the countries known as the Quad that also includes the US, Australia and India.

They now seek to bring in more countries in Southeast Asia and beyond that share concerns about China's increasing assertiveness in the region.

China defends its actions in the regional seas as peaceful and denies violating international rules, and has criticised the Quad as a NATO in Asia to counter China.

Despite its pacifist constitution, Japan's defence spending ranks among the world's top 10, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Australia ranks among the top 15.

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