Australia and Japan have reached an agreement in principle on a defence treaty that is expected to strengthen their security ties and facilitate cooperation between defence forces, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday.

"Australia and Japan have reached in principle agreement on a landmark defence treaty that will further deepen the countries’ strategic and security relationship", Morrison said in a statement, praising the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) as a "pivotal moment" in the history of bilateral relations.

"This agreement paves the way for a new chapter of advanced defence cooperation between our two countries. The only other such agreement that Japan has struck with another country is with the United States 60 years ago", the prime minister went on to say.

Under the new deal, the two countries' defence forces will boost practical cooperation; joint involvement in multilateral drills will be facilitated; and a clear framework on the defence forces' operations in both countries will be formed.

"The significance of the RAA cannot be understated. It will form a key plank of Australia's and Japan's response to an increasingly challenging security environment in our region amid more uncertain strategic circumstances. As we finalise the RAA I thank the work done by my predecessors as well as by former Japanese Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe across six years of negotiations", Morrison concluded.

The statement also said that the two sides agreed to hold consultations at the level of foreign and defence ministries in the 2+2 format in 2021.

"The Leaders instructed their respective Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Defence to further strengthen bilateral security and defence cooperation and hold the next Foreign and Defence Ministerial Consultations ('2+2') at the earliest convenient time in 2021", the agreement read.

The text also expressed serious concern about "the situation in the South China Sea and reconfirmed their strong opposition to any coercive or unilateral attempts to change the status quo and thereby increase tensions in the region", without mentioning Beijing outright.

At the same time, the agreement welcomed the signing of the China-dominated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement as an important step towards maintaining open markets in the region.

Navies of India, US, Australia, Japan to Kick Off Second Phase of Malabar Exercise Today

The Malabar series was first conducted as a bilateral India-US exercise in 1992. Japan joined the drills in 2015. Meanwhile, Australia has participated only once, back in 2007.

As the navies of India, the United States, Japan, and Australia are set to kick off the second phase of the Malabar exercise on Tuesday, the drills will be conducted in the northern Arabian Sea between 17 and 20 November. 

"The second phase of Malabar naval drills will be more elaborate and complex than the first one as it will involve the participation of Indian and American aircraft carriers", an Indian Navy spokesperson said.

He further mentioned that phase two will witness joint operations centred on the Vikramaditya Carrier Battle Group of the Indian Navy and the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group of the US Navy.

"The two carriers, along with other ships, submarines and aircraft of the participating navies, would be engaged in high intensity naval operations over four days”, he added.

The drills will include cross-deck flying operations and advanced air defence exercises by the INS Vikramaditya’s MiG-29K fighters and the USS Nimitz’s F-18 fighters and E2C Hawkeye aircraft. 

The drill will cover advanced surface and anti-submarine warfare exercises and weapons firing to “further enhance inter-operability and synergy between the four friendly navies”, the spokesperson said.

According to a senior navy official, the exercise is being conducted at a time when China is closely tracking the activities of the four countries and seeking to increase its footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). 

It is being conducted in a "non-contact, at sea only" format in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first phase of the exercise was held in the Bay of Bengal on 3-6 November.