Japan and Australia signed their first formal military agreement on Thursday to allow troops to conduct exercises in both countries.
The pact, known as the Reciprocal Access Agreement, was signed during a virtual meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison.
"This is a landmark deal that takes Japan-Australia security cooperation to a new level," Kishida said. "The importance of Japan-Australia security cooperation is increasing in the current security environment, and I am very pleased that the results of the vigorous negotiations between the two countries have come to fruition."
Morrison said Japan is Australia's closest partner in Asia. He said the agreement "will form an important part of Australia and Japan's response to the uncertainty we now face and will underpin greater and more complex engagement in operability between the Australian Defense Force and Japan Self-Defense Forces".
Thursday's agreement follows more than a year of talks between Tokyo and Canberra over removing legal and administrative barriers for more joint training and quick military support.
The deal was also signed less than 80 years after Japan bombed Darwin during World War II. Australia is the second country to have such a pact with Japan other than the United States.
The Status of Forces Agreement signed between Tokyo and Washington allows US military personnel to travel directly in and out of US bases in Japan without custom checks or health screenings. This is now under the spotlight following clusters of COVID-19 infections at US military bases in Japan's southernmost Okinawa prefecture that have spread to local communities, making Okinawa's COVID-19 situation the worst in Japan.
Though China was not mentioned in the agreement, it is widely believed by analysts and media that this is aimed at countering China.
On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China hopes that the Pacific will be "an ocean of peace, not a place to make waves".
"We always believe that state-to-state exchanges and cooperation should be conducive to enhancing mutual understanding and trust among countries in the region and safeguarding regional peace and stability, rather than targeting or undermining the interests of any third party," Wang said.
"The Pacific Ocean is vast enough for the common development of countries in the region. Along the same line, peace and stability in the Pacific depend on the joint efforts of countries in the region."