Tony Abbott’s upcoming visit to North Asia is a critical chance to address what is at present Australia’s greatest foreign and strategic policy problem – the pressure to choose between China and Japan.
For months, Australia has been caught up in a propaganda war between the two rivals, with their very different views on maritime disputes and wartime atrocities. Instability has become the new normal in relations between the wealthiest, most consequential powers in Asia.
So how Canberra navigates Beijing and Tokyo matters deeply.
But this should not be a simple rebalancing away from Japan and towards China.
Contrary to some misperceptions, Australia has not taken sides in their dispute over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands, and we should not start now. Australia is right not to recognise one country’s territorial claims over another’s. But Australia is especially right to support the principle that differences should be settled by means other than force.
China’s leaders and officials were dismayed at the new Abbott government’s decisions in late 2013 to align with the United States and Japan in a statement of opposition to coercive efforts to change the status quo in the East China Sea.
Accusation of double standards
Chinese officials argue that this is a double standard, saying that Japan had already in effect changed the status quo by purchasing the islands from their private Japanese owner in 2012.
Yet this Chinese view overlooks that Japan’s decision was about heading off a more provocative move, the threat of the islands’ nationalisation by the right-wing governor of Tokyo. It also ignores that Japanese strategic anxiety is understandable: its navy and coast guard have been subject to years of harassment and incursions by Chinese forces into maritime zones that the Japanese have long controlled.
China’s official unhappiness was stoked in November when Foreign Minister Julie Bishop called in its ambassador to express concerns about Beijing’s sudden announcement of a so-called air defence identification zone over the islands, a destabilising move even if technically within China’s rights.
A month later, Canberra chose not to criticise Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for visiting Yasukuni Shrine, to pay his respects to Japan’s millions of war dead, including convicted war criminals.
This was a lost opportunity to balance the diplomatic ledger between the two Asian powers and to send a signal to those in Japan troubled by their Prime Minister’s insensitivity about the dark side of his nation’s history. It is open to question whether speaking out clearly and early would have done much harm to Australia’s strong relations with Abe and the Japanese policy establishment.
Instead, Ms Bishop eventually used a speech in Washington to warn that the shrine visit had added to regional tension.
From John Howard to Kevin Rudd to Tony Abbott, new Australian governments tend to get off to a rocky start with China. Still, China’s continued willingness to pursue free trade negotiations with Australia confirms that there is no reason to believe the Abbott government can’t steer an effective course from here in North Asia’s turbulent waters, as long as it follows some sensible markers.
Principles not claims
We should align with principles, not countries and their claims.
As the sorry story of Crimea reminds us, one principle Australia should strongly support is the management of disputes without force or coercion.
Another principle is maintaining communication to forestall crisis –and right now China’s refusal to allow operational hotlines between its maritime forces and their Japanese counterparts amounts to a dangerous decision to raise the risks of incident, confrontation, and even war. Japan’s refusal to admit there is a dispute over the islands is also part of the problem.
In his travels, Mr Abbott should also emphasise Australia’s continued determination to work with the major Asian powers against common challenges.
Abe’s Japan proved an exceptional partner in sending naval forces to help the people of the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan.
Amid tragedy, the present search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 is a reminder of the potential for working with China’s rising military forces towards the common good.
And when he visits South Korea, the third country on his Asian tour also in the shadow of nuclear North Korea, Mr Abbott will have the chance to remind China and Japan of a threat that they and the rest of us can manage only together.