Walter Hamilton. Abe Over Australia.

Jul 7, 2014

In the six years since Kevin Rudd’s speech, in Mandarin, to students at Beijing University appeared to signal a sudden shift in Australia’s foreign policy focus towards China, and away from Japan, much has happened. Some even believe that the replacement of Rudd by Julia Gillard (not linguistically so equipped and keen to distinguish her policies from his) followed by the election of Tony Abbott as prime minister (bringing an ideological as well as a political agenda to the issue) has caused Rudd’s ‘pro-China’ course to be reversed. But this is a misreading of the larger picture. When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives in Australia on Monday––the most important visit by a Japanese leader since that of his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi in 1957––it will signify a new phase in the bilateral relationship that began taking shape before Rudd, continued during his two administrations, and has solidified since the Abbott government gained office.

The deepening of the relationship has multiple strands: trade, strategic alignment, political engagement, and defence co-operation. On the Australian side, it has been driven by senior bureaucrats in the Department of Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) rather than by individual politicians. Kevin Rudd’s facility in Mandarin excited the public imagination in 2008 without really impinging on the policy direction in Canberra, which always interpreted the United States’ ‘pivot to Asia’ as a pas de deux with Japan––and possibly a pas de trois (DFAT makes much of the fact that ‘Japan describes Australia as its second most important security partner’). While new forms of political and defence exchange with China are being pursued at the same time, they build upon a shallower institutional base.

Some major recent additions to the Japan-Australia framework include the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation of 2007 (which set in train regular ‘2+2’ talks involving the defence and foreign ministers of both countries); the signing of the Acquisition and Cross-Serving Agreement (ACSA) in 2010 (which makes joint military exercises operate more smoothly and could lead to a joint submarine development project); and the conclusion of the Japan Australia Economic Partnership Agreement last April (which Abbott and Abe will sign in Canberra during his visit). Some Japanese commentators consider a bilateral security treaty to be the logical outcome of these developments, although such a step is not in immediate prospect.

If Australians have not being paying attention to the drift of affairs, now is the time to do so. Certainly it is past time to discard the ‘if not China, then Japan’ false dichotomy––a notion that pretends to offer a fail-safe choice without our having to properly articulate the national interest.

Australia embarked on the latest phase of relationship building with Japan before the sudden deterioration in Japan-China relations in 2012. But under the Abe and Abbott administrations it seems that that event has been more of a spur than a complication. Abe has set a furious pace of diplomacy in the past two years, shoring up support among like-minded maritime states, with emphasis on two principles: any attempt to change the territorial status quo in the region by force must be resisted; and law-abiding states must uphold international rules government freedom of movement at sea. China and the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are the drivers of Tokyo’s preoccupation. China, on the other hand, considers the status quo, in which the United States asserts a leadership role in regional affairs, is itself an anachronism left over from an imperialist world order that Japan supposedly renounced in 1945.

In last month’s 2+2 talks in Tokyo, the Australian delegation was the first to be told of the latest incident in which a Chinese military fighter aircraft allegedly ‘buzzed’ a Japanese jet near the contested Senkaku-Diaoyu islands. The occasion enabled Japan to invite an expression of Australian solidarity in a moment of ‘danger’. It is not known if the Australian side resisted, but it is unlikely.

Japan has come to expect solidarity from the Abbott government. (For the PM, Japan is a ‘best friend’; for Defence Minister David Johnston, Japan is ‘one of my favourite countries’.)  Australia has been quick to approve the Abe Cabinet’s controversial decision to embrace the ‘right of collective defence’ (the actual Japanese phrase shudanteki jieiken translates as ‘the right of collective self-defence’, but I would argue that this is oxymoronic and misleading), which till now was adjudged contrary to the letter and spirit of the Japanese postwar constitution. Australia has eagerly endorsed a policy with which most of the Japanese public disagrees. Canberra and Washington consider that fully-fledged defence co-operation with Japan requires this newly-declared freedom of action, which Abe insists will not be used to get Japan involved in a foreign war. How that assurance can and will be policed, now or under a future administration––the legal bulwark having been dismantled––he has not explained. It is a question Australian journalists might wish to ask this week.

When Tony Abbott was in Tokyo in April he was afforded the opportunity of attending a session of Japan’s new National Security Council. That favour will be returned in Canberra, with interest. Abe will join a meeting of the Cabinet-level National Security Committee, as well as address a joint sitting of Parliament, the first Japanese leader to be extended this privilege.

Australians will see a Japanese politician they are not used to. Abe can speak in clear English. His appearance will be very different from the archetypal bespectacled ‘transistor salesman’ of Charles De Gaulle’s infamous bon mot (a reference to Prime Minister Ikeda in 1960). On the contrary, Abe is handsome, energetic, direct and emotional. He will seem ‘more like us’, and this will please policy-makers on both sides. But will Australians believe him when he says Japan still stands for peace and stability? That will be the true test.

In the week before Abe’s Australian visit, around the foreign policy ‘ballroom’, that glittering and restless dance-floor where world leaders take and change partners, some strange moves have been observed. In Seoul, there was a presidential waltz between China’s Xi Jinping and South Korea’s Park Guen-hye. Unprecedentedly, Xi chose Park for his first dance on the peninsula ahead of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. The fact that Tokyo currently has wretched relations with Seoul surely had something to do with it. Then, what do we see in Pyongyang, but a Japanese diplomatic mission persuading North Korea to undertake a ‘serious’ investigation into the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped by the communist state in the 1970s and 1980 (an issue especially dear to Abe). As an up-front payment, the Abe government immediately eased sanctions against North Korea, previously at the top of its ‘hate’ list­––in the absence of any international agreement on the bigger issues of human rights abuses and Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Strange dance partners indeed.

The lesson to be learnt from Seoul and Pyongyang is that, in the absence of a sound and progressive relationship between China and Japan––Abe and Xi have not held one summit meeting, whereas Park and Xi have met five times––all other contingent relationships are subject to distortions, in substance or interpretation. The Korean peninsula is a dangerous venue in which to get out of step with the music; rising tensions in the East China and South China Seas over a grab bag of disputed reefs and atolls are also pulling diplomacy out of shape.

This rapidly shifting and unpredictable environment puts at risk––indeed could be inflamed by––any gains in Australia’s bilateral relationship with Japan. A closer relationship with a democratic Japan, a major trading partner and security interlocutor, is highly desirable, do not mistake me, but it cannot proceed indifferent to the multilateral regional outlook. The distorting effect of the serious falling-out between Tokyo and Beijing is already changing calculations and choices; ideological symmetries and short-term opportunism are not a sound basis for calculating national interest in the longer run.

The political theatre surrounding Abe’s appearance in Australia will play in a pre-determined way before other regional spectators. Australia will not control the reviews. That is, unless the government is brave enough to take the opportunity to raise its hand to the orchestra, bring the dance to a halt for a moment, and forthrightly address the subject that all in the throng are talking about behind their fans: the dangerous wrong-headedness harming relations between Japan and China. Somehow a new start must be made, and Australia will have few better opportunities than during this week to play the honest broker. If all the talk we hear is platitudes about shared values and interests, framing the deepening relationship between Australia and Japan exclusively within a narrow two-step of brinkmanship and Sinophobia, it will be an opportunity sadly missed.

Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for eleven years for the ABC.

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