Australia plays the game

A day after reports that Australia is set to join the US and Japan in researching missile defense — an agreement reached at the first Australia-Japan 2 + 2 meeting — Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has, in the words of The Australian, “defend[ed] China’s military build-up.”

Readers can probably imagine that I have no problem with Mr. Downer’s “defense.” Some could accuse me of doing the same as Mr. Downer.

There is good sense in not exaggerating China’s defense modernization, which is still overwhelming concerned with Taiwan, and even as China looks further afield for a defense role, there is no guarantee that a great regional security role for China will necessarily be hostile to the US and its allies.

This idea is, of course, controversial in certain circles in Washington and Tokyo (just ask Mr. Downer’s Japanese counterpart). But Australia is not in a position to join a grand coalition to contain China, and thus Australia’s involvement in missile defense research seems to come with major caveats, bearing in mind Australia’s relationship with China. Does the Japanese government really think it can afford to act differently?

So I must raise the same objections I raised back in March, when commentators burdened the Australia-Japan security declaration with meaning that it was not designed to bear. Rather Australia, like its ASEAN neighbors, is playing — and ought to play — the great game, maneuvering among the region’s great powers to maximize its advantage.

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