Looking to the past for an East Asia (China) Policy

We need a policy not of belligerence or appeasement, but of self-confident intelligence and guile; one that tolerates open debate and keeps the intimidation of the security services at bay, deriding the loyalty tests for bureaucrat and academics implied in much of the commentary.

If I were a modest man, I would be embarrassed by the mention of me in the AFR leader (AFR View of Friday, July 10 ) that recalled the imagination and long term vision of Sir John Crawford and Sir John McEwan in the successful negotiation of the Japan Trade treaty of 1957.

My reporting from Tokyo in the AFR 10 years later as the treaty brought an explosion of trade merely recorded the fruits of that far-sighted trade and foreign policy project. But your leader does underline the contrast between the guile and vision of Crawford and McEwan and the guileless belligerence of our current policies towards the new economic power in East Asia. There was plenty of thoughtless belligerence in the 1950s which Menzies, McEwen and Crawford, had to confront, circumvent and -mostly – use the powers of political persuasion to confound.

This was after all an electorate of embittered diggers and protected industries unwilling to give up their rents. Fortunately, these were mature policymakers who had a vision of 20 years plus and who were well aware from their experience in the 1930s that raw domestic political rhetoric and wishful reliance on an uncertain ally had led to disaster in the Pacific. And of course in my time at the AFR I had the support of editors, who shared the long vision of Crawford and McEwen—and their equally liberal and far-sighted counterparts in Japan like Professor Kiyoshi Kojima and foreign minister Takeo Miki.

Fortunately the  AFR today still has its traditional concern for diversity in comment and intelligence in policy scrutiny… and we badly need it for there is little elsewhere. Today our underlying policy assumption is that Xi will be in power forever, that dialogue and connections with the more liberal elements of the Chinese policy apparatus are virtual treason that the Chinese people are an enemy that must be -empty phrase- “called out”, and that the US will always be there to support our bluster.

The emphasis is all short term- even though our noisy re-arming has at best a 20-year horizon before serious rearmament is achieved.

This is a policy of mindless self-harm and it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for which, as with the 1930s bluster, a younger generation will pay heavily. We need a policy neither of belligerence or appeasement but of self-confident intelligence and guile.. that tolerates open debate and keeps the intimidation of the security services at bay, and derides the loyalty tests for bureaucrat and academics that are implied in much of the “hawks” commentary, as we do in a democracy. Not unlike Japan. All that work of the 1950s  generation deserves it.

This is a letter to the Editor of the AFR  by Max Suich which was published on 14 July.2020. Max Suich was formerly AFR correspondent in Tokyo and Editor of the AFR. It is reproduced here with the agreement of Max Suich.

From John Menadue:

Reading Max Suich’s account of the far-sighted work of  Jack McEwan and John Crawford  I recall that I wrote a similar appreciation in 1999 in my autobiography  ‘Things you learn along the way’ about Australia’s adept diplomacy in the 1950s ‘I remember Sir John Crawford, who was Secretary of the Department of Trade in 1957, telling me in Tokyo 20 years later, that in the negotiations for the Commerce Agreement in 1957 he had secret meetings with the Japanese for fear that the RSL or other groups in Australia would be protesting at the door.

I recall Ambassador Nobuhiko Ushiba, a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official who participated in those negotiations, saying that the Australian Government was so forthcoming in 1957, with Jack McEwen as the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade, that the Japanese government thought it was a trick. They couldn’t believe that the Australian Government was so generous.

The trade relationship started from a very rocky patch but by the time I went to Japan, trade was developing dramatically. It continued like that for another 15 to 20 years. It was a good time to be in Japan’  pp 196/7

This was skilful diplomacy in building our mutually beneficial relationship with Japan. What a contrast to our boof headed diplomacy in our relations today with China

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Suich edited The National Times. As Chief Editorial Executive of Fairfax, Suich appointed Vic Carroll editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and gave him the resources to put it on a path to becoming a world-class newspaper.

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