Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Japan’s advice to Australia to co-exist with China

Stay firm and don’t be swayed by Beijing’s emotional accusations should be Shinzo Abe’s lessons for Scott Morrison.

High school students cheer at a military camp in Shanxi Province, China (Photo: VCG via Getty)
High school students cheer at a military camp in Shanxi Province, China (Photo: VCG via Getty)
Published 5 Oct 2018 

Japan’s Shinzo Abe now ranks as one of the region’s most experienced prime ministers, and will likely meet with Australia’s newest leader, Scott Morrison, in November.

China’s growing influence in the region is a topic both leaders must discuss, given that the prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific region is near the top of the agenda for both Australia and Japan. Australia’s former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull had difficulties working with Beijing, while Abe is seemingly managing the China relationship better lately.

Indeed, Abe recently met with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Vladivostok to attend the Eastern Economic Forum, and is scheduled to visit China and meet with Xi again in October. The Japan-China relationship is getting warmer while the Australia-China relationship remains chilly.

Australia and Japan can share ideas about co-existing with a growing China. Abe should share with Morrison the lessons Japan has learnt from its experience of co-existing with China.

Finding common ground

Australia and Japan actually share much common ground, with an alliance with the US central to the security policy of each nation. Both are clearly concerned that China’s coercive behaviour may generate instability in the region. The so called “Quad” is another example of Australia and Japan, along with US and India, sharing the same values about regional peace and stability. 

On trade and investment, both nations took a great initiative in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after Donald Trump withdrew from the previous negotiations­ – a deal that the Chinese state media Global Times noted “will pose a challenge for China”.

Yet at the same time, both nations are working together with China, as well as other regional countries, on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP): indeed, Japan and China are leading this regional trade framework.

Both nations are also key sources of China’s economic development. China is eager to secure natural resources from Australia as well as the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from Japan (the third largest to China). And while China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has led to anguished debates, even the suggestion of a trilateral partnership with the US to rival the BRI,  both Japan and Australia have also agreed with China to seek the possibility of commercial cooperation, including on infrastructure project in third markets.

Both nations have to deal with Chinese sensitivities. For many Chinese, Japanese rule and the war in the early 20th century remains a period of great humiliation. For its part, Australia has long criticised China about human rights issues, as well as recent statements about so-called “debt trap diplomacy” in the Pacific islands region.

Standing apart

The difference in public sentiment towards China from both Australia and Japann is striking. According to recent opinion polls, 52% of Australian respondents trust China, while less than 19% of Japanese respondents have friendly feelings towards China, which has dropped from more than 30% until 2009.

In the past decade, for instance, Chinese authorities led anti-Japan demonstrations, which created division among the Japanese public. The concerns were exacerbated by China’s unilateral action in the East China Sea, and Japan’s FDI to China has declined since 2012.

The wildcard is US President Donald Trump, and how his presidency has influence the perceptions of China among allies, as well as views of America. Recently, China’s Xi Jinping “urged breaking new ground in major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics”, a clear sign of China’s intention to be a global leader: in other words, he announced a challenge to the US and the existing world order. China considers the US to be its only rival, and other countries, including Japan and Australia, are just “small flies” flying around the US.

Yet China must have noted that Abe is managing his relationship with Trump relatively well. Indeed, Abe has already met with Trump eight times since he became president, while Turnbull had some difficulty in building a personal relationship with his American counterpart.

Abe’s advice to Morrison

Australia clearly stated a concern about China`s behaviour in the region in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, and media reporting of China’s influence campaigns saw the Australian government introduce new laws to tackle the problem.

The debates about China’s influence campaigns has actually given Australia a taste of the type of emotional accusations Beijing continuously doles out to Tokyo. China will not quickly forgive Australia for openly criticising Chinese influence; such criticism is, rightly or wrongly, viewed by China as humiliating.

Abe should tell Morrison not to be afraid of such rhetorical pressure. Swinging its China policy back and forth according to such invective is counterproductive, simply because the barrage of charges will never end.

Therefore, Australia should stay firm in dealing with China, as Japan does. Rhetorical pressure also doesn`t work on China. So Abe can encourage Morrison to take a meaningful action with Japan, just as Japan did with UK recently.

This is the most effective way to deal with China and should be the “new normal”.

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