Robert Ayson is a Visiting Fellow with the ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, on research leave from the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.
It's highly unsurprising that China has reacted negatively to the statement coming out of the recent Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD) in Bali. Venturing where foreign policy angels should fear to tread, Australia (via Julie Bishop) and the US (via John Kerry) had earlier joined an obviously thrilled Japan in opposing 'any coercive or unilateral actions that could change the the status quo in the East China Sea.'
This unnecessarily provocative piece of security diplomacy made me wonder whether I was right in thinking that earlier TSD statements had been mild and unexciting by comparison. A quick review tells me that my recollection was accurate.
The statement of the first dialogue, held in 2006, for example, actually 'welcomed China's constructive involvement in the region.' And the statement from the 2009 meeting, which had lasted all of 40 minutes, is a model of anodyne reportage. Particularly gripping is the comment that ''Ministers discussed ways in which trilateral cooperation can be designed to meet future challenges, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.' That's not designed to offend anyone unless they are upset by the idea of going to sleep.
Fast forward to 2013 and something has changed. Partly, of course, it is the security environment. Japan, one of the three TSD musketeers, is involved in an especially contentious disagreement with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, a China that has become more willing to push its weight around. But why it makes sense for Australia to publicly align itself with Japan on a problem that can only lead to tears is beyond comprehension.
Let me be clear (as a recent candidate for high office was fond of saying). I'm not suggesting that it is in Australia's interests to see Japan weak and inactive. Indeed a strong but sensible Japan is good for the sort of great power equilibrium on which Australia's security continues to rest. But that does not mean Australia has to take sides with its security partner on the East China Sea.
Nor am I saying that the first principle of Australian diplomacy is to avoid annoying China. But why do this unnecessarily, including at a time when Australia is seeking an FTA with the Middle Kingdom?
Words matter in an environment where everyone is watching the signals others are sending. Tony Abbott's comment that Japan is Australia's 'best friend' in Asia is another example of unnecessary posturing. The big risk here is that this elevated friendship will be used to box Australia into a position that pleases Tokyo but hurts Canberra.
Sometimes being bored is not the worst place to be in regional diplomacy. Whoever wrote those impeccably dull words after the 2009 meeting needs to be let loose again on the TSD process. Otherwise Australia will get sucked into the sorts of regional alliance expectations it doesn't need.
Photo by Flickr user Jason Pier in DC.