Cautious, middle of the road wisdom won’t solve Asia’s problems

Feb 4, 2024
Map puzzle Asia Pacific view.

The recent Statement from former Australian Foreign Ministers Gareth Evans and Bob Carr calling for Australia to play a role in seeking detente between the US and China in Asia is worthy.  But is it realistic?

It tells us that the Australia-Japan initiated International Commission on Nuclear Non- Proliferation and Disarmament of 2009, is a model of creative, middle power diplomacy.

But in the name of protecting its own security Tokyo rejects any disarmament proposal that hints of sacrificing absolute US nuclear security. How is that supposed to promote detente in Asia?

A resolution of the North Korea problem must be a key to any such detente.  But Tokyo was directly responsible for sabotaging the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration that would have seen North Korea make its first move to nuclear disarmament and to joining in North Asia diplomacy.

The sabotage was largely the handiwork of former (now deceased) Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, assisted by fanatical anti-Pyongyang elements who say North Korea is hiding and using people abducted secretly from Japan more than 50 years ago. Some insist the number of abductees could be close to eight hundred.

This is totally unsubstantiated ‘fairies in the attic’ fantasy. Yet the abductee problem was recently voiced again by Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida as reason to keep pressure on Pyongyang.

How can we have detente in Asia if Tokyo’s unrepentant foreign policy fanatics continue to receive encouragement at the highest levels?

That Declaration was largely the work of a senior, dedicated Japanese Foreign Ministry official, Hitoshi Tanaka, and the then North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il.  How can Asia move to detente when the painstaking work of detente-minded individuals can be so easily discarded?

The Evans-Carr detente statement calls for a freezing of the Taiwan Straits status-quo. But we know this is something Beijing cannot accept.  Nor, one assumes, can Australia or the US, since both accepted in the seventies Beijing’s treaty-based claims to Taiwan and both insist they continue to abide by a rules-based international order.

How can there be any detente in Asia if major powers can be allowed to say one thing one day and something different the next, simply as a matter of convenience?

The Statement calls for both sides to ‘desist from demands for absolute primacy’.  But at last call Beijing was not seeking any absolute primacy. It was the US with its claims to exceptionalism.

The overall tone of the Statement is cautious, anxiously seeking the middle of the road – similar to what we used to hear during the Vietnam War, with both sides unrealistically called to accept the status quo. Detente in Asia demands some attempt to find justice. Would it be expected to endorse repression by Myanmar generals, for example.

The Statement mentions Henry Kissinger and the former Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, as examples of detente seekers. Kissinger deserves credit for his 1971 move to open the door to China. But the latter was the author of the Brezhnev Doctrine justifying Soviet 1968 intervention to crush Czechoslovakia’s liberalisation.

Nikita Khrushchev was a much better Soviet example. His efforts at detente could have ended the Cold War. But they were shot down by US hawks. And he was overthrown in 1964 by Leonid Brezhnev.

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