Japan passing, Australian style

Tom Conley and Michael Heazle, writing in The Australian, look back to the 1990s to criticize Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s travel itinerary.

In addition to haranguing Japan on whaling, they argue

Rudd has added insult to injury by snubbing Japan on his coming world tour. The Prime Minister seemingly can find the time to traverse the entire globe but not to visit Japan. The cold-shoulder is made more disturbing for Tokyo by the inevitable comparison it creates with Australia’s relationship with Beijing and the constant reporting of Sinophile Rudd as China’s new golden child. It is certainly no secret that early visits are symbolically important, since they give a strong indication of who and what the new leader considers to be important. In the arena of foreign relations and diplomacy, impressions matter and Australia has had few prime ministers more aware of this basic fact. All of which makes Rudd’s Japan passing even more curious.

They further argue that Mr. Rudd’s focus on China is misguided due to Japan’s commitment sound Australia-Japan relations and its enduring significance as a regional economic power.

Back when Mr. Rudd followed Mr. Fukuda into power last year, I expressed my hopes that “with Fukuda Yasuo replacing Mr. Abe, and the Mandarin-speaking Mr. Rudd replacing Mr. Howard, the ‘deputy sheriff,’ the ‘quad’ may be no more. Both Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Rudd seem to believe that their power is best spent promoting cooperation in Asia, not deepening security cooperation among democracies conveniently located on all sides of China.”

I still think that these leaders’ thinking on Asia policy is the way of the future, but I was clearly mistaken in expecting that Australia and Japan might begin articulating a new approach in the immediate future. The fault is not Mr. Rudd’s alone. What would a visit to Tokyo now accomplish? The Fukuda government, completely distracted by mounting domestic problems and possibly on its last legs, has made little progress articulating a new Asia policy or a new grand strategy in which to embed it.

So yes, Mr. Rudd should have made a stop — and should put some effort into thinking about both countries can balance their China ties with their links to the US. But he can’t be blamed too much for passing up a photo-op with an enfeebled Mr. Fukuda.

4 thoughts on “Japan passing, Australian style

  1. Tobias,I think your argument is quite confused in this post, and I think that you do not do yourself any favours by quoting from that piece in the Australian, which is a seriously crap article. Both the article (and also your post) ignore most of the recent history of Australia-Japan relations. The Australian-Japan relationship is a mature one and there is plenty or understanding and recognition in the Rudd government of the importance of Japan. The first major overseas trip of the new government (leaving aside Rudd\’s trip to the climate change summit in Bali) was the Trade Minister Simon Crean\’s trip to Japan. There is some symbolism in that no? Crean indicated as much when he was here, saying that is was significant that his first trip was to Japan, and not the US or China or elsewhere. For Australia and Japan, the most important issue right now is the FTA talks, of which Round 4 was held in Tokyo 2 weeks ago. Closer economic ties hold the promise for closer and better relations and the Australian government is quote clear on their hopes for successful negotiations. This is unlike the negotiations wiht China, which are at a standstill.Nowhere in any of the articles I have read on this subject has there been any mention of the security agreement signed last year between Japan and Australia. In Australia this was uncontroversial and enjoys bipartisan support. After their respective treaties with the US, this is the most important formal security (and relationship) that both countries have. I see no evidence of any such agreement with China, nor could there be until there is a solution to the Taiwan issue and China\’s Human Rights problems. The whaling issue is a problem and this is an area (really the only area) where the new governments policy differs from the previous governments. But even with the rather heated feelins on both sides, Kevin Rudd recently expressed confidence that the issue would be solved diplomatically. This was in an interview with Yoichi Funabashi. Interestingly enough, people in Japan are so concerned about Australia and \”Japan passing\” that the Asahi did not run the whole interview, but merely summarised it on one of the inside pages. I would argue that it shows the strength of Japan-Oz relations when we can have a dispute over a issue such as whaling, and it has almost no effect on our relationship. The only evidence offered in that article (and others like it) for this idea of Japan passing is1. Kevin Rudd speaks Chinese2. Australia criticises Japan\’s whaling program3. Kevin Rudd is not coming to JapanThe facts that Kevin Rudd speaks Chinese (which does not make him a sinophile) and Australia does not like whaling is evidence for not very much. It is certainly not evidence to show that Australia is focusing on China at the expense of Japan or that Japan is being ignored. This sounds more the crying or a jilted lover, not a serioius foreign policy discussion.You argued for an Australian and Japanese government that would try to steer a course between China and the US, promoting cooperation in Asia. I hope this is what the new Australian government will be doing , but this will be difficult if people in Japan see the sitaution as a zero-sum game. Those people for whom symbols are all will be reassured to know that Kevin Rudd will come to Japan in July for the G7 summit. But ignoring the symbolic photo-ops and symbolic cetaceans, I would argue that the relationship between Australia and Japan is better now than ever, with excellent links at the political, economic and security levels. I am confident that we can expect more of the same. I do think that more needs to be done to better relations with China and increase cooperation in North-East Asia, but it is not an either or question. It is not about Australia picking Japan or China (as some commentators seem to want). It is a question of how to increase cooperation and decrease tension in North-East Asia, because a stable economic and security situation in Asia is Australia\’s only national interest.For a laugh, take a look at: http://tinyurl.com/2bg4n7 (It is an article from the Sydney Morning Herald, but the URL was too long so I put it in this form).


  2. James,Thank you for your well-stated comment.I should have made it clearer that I by no means embrace the view articulated in the article. I found the concerns about China overblown (and the whaling issue is probably more significant for international media than for most citizens of the two countries).That said, I think you overstate the importance of last year\’s security declaration, as I argued at the time. (Look at the keyword list for Australia-Japan security declaration.)The falls of John Howard and Abe Shinzo did much to curb fanciful and irresponsible talk of the quartet of Asia-Pacific democracies — and arguably last year\’s security declaration was caught up in that rhetoric. Australia and Japan will have deeper security ties over the coming decades, but that cooperation will be more low-key and might even involve working with China.Australia and Japan are in remarkably similar positions. The China-US choice is a false one: Tokyo and Canberra need good ties with both, and with each other. My point is that Japan still isn\’t quite prepared to embrace this middle- (and middling) power role.I\’m certainly not worried that Australia is neglecting Japan, or will do so over the long term.As I said in the original post, I don\’t really blame Rudd for skipping Tokyo. The politics of the region ensure that Australian-Japanese ties will continue to deepen in one form or another.


  3. Anonymous

    \”I think that you do not do yourself any favours by quoting from that piece in the Australian, which is a seriously crap article.\”You may not like the OZ article,James.But I does reflect the Japanese frustration accurately.We were also not very amused Canberra and Australian medias flaming Sea Shepherd and other anti-whale groups and painted a sinister picture like \”Planet Earth vs Japan\”,even though in reality Minke whales are not endangered species and Canberra is a newcomer to Kyoto convention.Tokyo has also been fighting hard to include Australia and NZ(along with India) in Asian community where Beijing has dominant power,but it seems their effort was betrayed by a knife from the back.Naturally,the perception in Japan is getting bashed and passed at the same time by Down Under,especially at the time of Japan\’s reputation goes down and China\’s sky rocketted.Ofcourse,this is all politics.And no one is \”blaming\”Australia for it\’s choice regarding their national interest.But I wonder about \”talk of the quartet of Asia-Pacific democracies \”.It may have overly fanciful,but was it irresponsible? Abe\’s intention was not only to counter the rise of China,but making some sort of alliance that can harness American unilateraism in the region.It was among few things I could agree with him.But now it seems to be the opportunity is lost forever.\”The China-US choice is a false one: Tokyo and Canberra need good ties with both, and with each other. My point is that Japan still isn\’t quite prepared to embrace this middle- (and middling) power role.\”Australia is hardly the target of any foreign nationalism and lies far from East Asia.Japan is not.Australia has been building impressive military under the decade of Howard administration.But Japan,it was another lost decade.I think Japan is quite prepared to embrace middle power role,as so has it been for the past 50 years,but not being Taiwanized,something Australians are in no need to worry.I just talked to my superior to have more focus on Rudd interview at UN that he is not intending to skip Japan.But my boss\’s answer was \”So What? As long as they sell us some beef to our households,all is normal.Our ties were never that close anyway.\”Aceface


  4. Anonymous

    Kevin Rudd, Australia\’s new PM, spoke at the Brookings Institution today (3/31), which aired on CSPAN. He is touted to be an impressive departure from the crabby Australia-first conservatism of John Howard, but I am sorry to say this wasn\’t evident to me. He spoke at length on foreign affairs starting with the obligatory praise of the strong Aussie-US ties and alliance. He went on to assess the security situation confronting Australia in Asia and the Western Pacific touching on the developments of the past 10 years. Nothing new here. He spent most of the talk on China – its impressive economic growth and attempts of Australia and the US to bring China into the international community through engagement in trade and security forums like the Six-party talks. He said as expected that despite some success in this respect, relations with China will remain touchy and difficult well into the future. Again nothing really new. He did state that he will pursue a cautious realistic strategy on foreign policy. This was the only notable comment that he made in his talk. He plans to withdraw Aussie ground troops from Iraq but will retain naval and air units for the time being.


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