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East China Sea: Is Australia hitting the 'pause' button on the Japan relationship?

East China Sea: Is Australia hitting the 'pause' button on the Japan relationship?

Maybe Robert E Kelly is right that there has been too much gnashing of teeth and tearing of clothes over the very short change given to Asia in Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address. But as indicated by the title, this is the President's one big annual speech about America, so it is still notable that the President did not mention the serious crisis occurring between China, America's leading strategic competitor, and Japan, its leading Asian ally.

A look at the President’s text indicates that China was mentioned briefly (in the role of economic competitor) and that Japan was entirely left out. Also excluded was the 'pivot' or 'rebalance' or whatever it will next be called; Obama used the even more anaemic 'focus'. The John Kerry effect is obvious here.

Japan did make it into some beltway words last week when Washington's next Ambassador to China, Max Baucus, gave testimony to the Senate. But if you read the transcript of the prepared text, Japan only features as a backpacking destination (for the younger Baucus) and as a leading trading partner for the US today. In words that seemed very conciliatory towards Beijing, and which are at odds with the tough tone from Baucus identified in some of the American media coverage, no mention is made of America's alliances in the region. And while the prepared remarks do mention territorial issues, they make no specific reference to the East China Sea.

Accuse me of making mountains out of molehills if you will, but I think the US has pushed the 'pause' button on Japan since Mr Abe's provocative visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. [fold]

Washington was very quick to express its disapproval about that visit, and has been signaling that restraint in East Asia is not just needed from China. Hence the line from Ambassador-designate Baucus that when he gets to Beijing, 'I will stress that all sides must work together to manage and resolve sovereignty disputes without coercion or the use of force.'

Indeed, Washington has been calling on Japan to do more to improve its relations with all its neighbours. Unfortunately, the recent trading of barbs at the UN suggests this is going to be some way off. Both China and South Korea seem to be suggesting that any real improvement will probably have to wait for Mr Abe's departure from office. 

Washington's approach has significant ramifications for its southern alliance anchor in the Asia Pacific. You might remember all the clamour in these pages last year about the Abbott Government’s enthusiasm for a very close Japan relationship. In one remarkable moment of enthusiasm, Mr Abbott even managed to turn Japan into a 'strong ally' comparable to Australia’s relationship with the US.

But reading a speech by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to a recent conference in Washington on the Australia-US alliance, one wonders if the new government hasn't put its Japan romance on ice and followed Washington's lead. Bishop did raise China's controversial declaration of its East China Sea Air Defence Information Zone, but she seemed to pair it with Mr Abe's shrine visit. Such events bring 'to the fore the unresolved tensions between China, Japan and South Korea' and 'escalate the already tense regional environment.'

Recognising that there is also no love lost between Tokyo and Seoul, Bishop went on to note that 'it is particularly important that our friends in Japan and South Korea, both, like Australia, allies of the United States, should overcome the current strains in their relationship.'

I suspect it is now becoming clearer to the Coalition government, including quite possibly its leader, that it really is not possible for Japan to be Australia's 'best friend in Asia.' Unless of course there is a significant difference of opinion between the Foreign Minister and her advisers, and the Prime Minister and his.

Photo by Flickr user Charlotte90T.

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