Photo/Illutration Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the Australian Army participate in the “Southern Jackal” drill with the United States in Queensland, Australia, in May 2018. (Provided by the Defense Ministry)

Japan’s use of the death penalty has hampered negotiations with Australia on what would be an unprecedented agreement to tighten maritime defense cooperation in the face of China’s aggressive behavior.

The talks are intended to set the legal status of both armed forces when they visit each other’s countries to respond to natural disasters or conduct joint operations.

Essentially, the proposed reciprocal access agreement would ease the immigration process for visiting forces and allow Australian military vehicles and fighter jets to enter Japan for use in the Self-Defense Forces’ exercise areas.

The two countries had worked to conclude an agreement by early 2019. It would be Japan’s first such pact with a foreign country regarding visiting forces.

However, Japanese government sources said Tokyo wants the agreement to include a clause that gives Japan preferential criminal jurisdiction rights over off-duty Australian personnel who commit crimes while visiting Japan for drills and other military-related purposes.

Likewise, Australia would be given preferential criminal jurisdiction over off-duty SDF personnel who commit crimes in Australia, according to the sources.

But Canberra has expressed concerns that Australian military personnel could be sentenced to death under Japanese law.

All Australian states abolished capital punishment by 1985, and the last execution carried out in the country was in 1967.

The Australian government in June 2018 also announced its diplomatic strategy to lobby the international community to abolish capital punishment.

Japan and the United States are among the minority, as more than two-thirds of the world’s countries do not issue death sentences, according to Amnesty International.

The Japanese government acknowledged that it is difficult to close the gap over the capital punishment issue with Australia, and that Tokyo remains cautious about exempting Australian troops from death sentences.

A Japanese Defense Ministry official said the negotiations currently “warrant no optimism.”

Under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), Japan, in principal, has criminal jurisdiction over off-duty U.S. military personnel who commit crimes in the country.

U.S. military personnel convicted of heinous crimes in Japan can be sentenced to death, a Foreign Ministry official said.

To the inquiry from The Asahi Shimbun, a spokesperson of Australia’s defense ministry declined to comment on the criminal jurisdiction issue, saying the matter is under negotiation.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot agreed in July 2014 to start negotiations for a reciprocal access agreement.

With China continuing to make moves in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, Abe and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in November agreed to work for an early conclusion of the talks.

(This article was written by Shinichi Fujiwara in Tokyo and Tetsuo Kogure in Sydney.)