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Australia-Japan relations: Abbott risks entrapment

Australia-Japan relations: Abbott risks entrapment
Published 11 Apr 2014   Follow @rikkikersten

Australia's relationship with Japan has witnessed some extraordinary developments in recent months.

On 31 March Australia won its case against Japanese 'scientific' whaling at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and less than two weeks later the two nations signed a Free Trade Agreement in Tokyo that was seven years in the making. Late last year Prime Minister Tony Abbott made some inflated statements about Australia's security relationship with Japan, and he capped this week's visit to Japan with an unprecedented address to Japan's newly formed National Security Council.

This flurry of activity leaves the impression of a deepening bilateral relationship that consolidates strengthened security ties. It also reverses the momentum in the postwar relationship. Previously, trade had opened the door for the eventual extraordinary institutionalisation of security ties in 2007, in the form of the Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. Arguably, the new FTA is the primary beneficiary of the steady, systematic deepening of security ties between two US allies since 2007, in a time of rising tension in Northeast Asia that is squarely centred on Japan and its immediate neighbourhood.

The real challenge for Australia is not so much how to navigate hierarchical positioning between its three trading partners in Northeast Asia (Japan, China, ROK), but rather how it can develop its already advanced security ties with Japan without becoming entrapped in the nationalist-driven agenda of Prime Minister Abe and his minority rightist constituency. This is why Abbott's address to Japan's National Security Council might give cause for regret in the future. [fold]

The whaling issue had two faces in Japan: one pragmatic, one emotive. The ICJ decision against Japan was a classic case of 'gaiatsu', whereby external pressure was used as justification for a course that Japanese governments had wanted to pursue, but could not for domestic reasons. Whale meat is not popular in Japan, and the heavily subsidised harvest of Japan's Southern Ocean hunts was being stockpiled in vast quantities. The ICJ decision has liberated Japan from an uneconomic industry that was already deeply in the red.

But because the whaling issue had been portrayed in Japan as a matter of 'food culture', Prime Minister Abe was unable to own this decision. Now Abe has been spared the embarrassment of being seen to fail to protect Japanese culture and its integrity, and has maintained his nationalist credentials.

This was particularly salient given that Abe has in recent months restored nationalist policies to the top of his agenda. Having recalled his Security Policy Committee to consider the circumstances in which Japan might engage in 'collective self defence' – which would give Japan's military a more active role and is hitherto inconsistent with accepted interpretations of the constitution – Abe then forced his Secrets Act through parliament in late 2013 despite public outcry over both the process and the consequences for free speech and transparency.

Faced with the certainty that public opinion in Japan would not support a referendum to revise Japan's constitution, Prime Minister Abe has since declared his intention to seek a reinterpretation of the constitution to facilitate collective self defence. He has orchestrated personnel appointments in relevant areas, notably the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, to ensure a favourable outcome. This is a well-worn path, but by circumventing democratic accountability and the popular will, the Prime Minister is aligning security policy with an unrepresentative, ideological policy trajectory that will be inflammatory at home and abroad.

The symbolism that attaches to Prime Minister Abbott's address to Japan's NSC is therefore problematic; it associates Abbott and Australia with domestically-oriented messages that will have damaging resonance in the region. This kind of entrapment in Japan's internal nationalist discourse is not in Australia's interests, even though a strong security partnership with Japan is clearly consistent with our security objectives in the region.

On one level, Abbott and Abe share a strong personal commitment to the primacy and essential legitimacy of patriotism and national pride. As Australia moves towards the emotionally charged anniversary of Gallipoli, there is much in the commemorational atmosphere in Australia that chimes with Abe's own desires for postwar Japan: namely, a nation that can be proud of itself, its history, and its contribution to the global community.

It is natural to yearn for a positive past, and to want to celebrate a magnificent history. But Prime Minister Abbott must look beyond the clarion call for patriotism and his natural affinity with Abe's own convictions as long as the search for a positive past in Japan is tied to obfuscation of responsibility for deeds that Australia has forgiven, but not forgotten. Australia's national interest is to work with Japan as a democratic nation that is committed to peace and to the liberal international community, and we should strive to accompany Japan on this path.

Photo by Flickr user CSIS.

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