Andrew Shearer, a fellow at Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy, has an excellent op-ed in The Australian (H/T to JG) putting Mr. Rudd’s visit in perspective and proposing a framework for Australian foreign policy that balances relations with China and Japan.
Without denying the importance of the Sino-Australian relationship, Shearer argues that a strong relationship with Japan — Australia’s largest export market — is an indispensable asset for Australian foreign policy. He gets at the important point that Australia and Japan share concerns. Both have deepening economic ties with China, but at the same time they fear China’s growing heft and want the US — each country’s most important ally — to remain engaged in the region. But “engaged” is not a code word for containing China. As Shearer argues, “It doesn’t mean Australia and the US should not pursue realistic, constructive relations with China. Calm dealings between Washington and Beijing, in particular, are important for Japan’s deep relationship with China and for vital Australian strategic and economic interests.”
The challenge for not only Japan and Australia but for India, South Korea, and China’s neighbors in Southeast Asia is balancing their ever more important economic relationships with China with their security relationships with the US, a US that is unfortunately prone to militarized overreaction that could undermine economic relationships with China. (To be fair, US bluster is matched by a China that is rapidly modernizing its military and looking to bolster its power projection capabilities). The countries on China’s periphery, especially Australia and Japan, clearly value the US hedge against a belligerent China. The challenge for all of these countries clustered between the US and China is to moderate the behavior of both powers; these mid-sized players must ensure that the US is around and engaged but not overly aggressive or prone to crusading, and that China is a “responsible stakeholder” and force for stability in the region.
Accordingly, the value of cooperation between India, Australia, and Japan is not as a democratic ring around China but as a force for restraint acting on both China and the US.
In light of Mr. Fukuda’s recent remarks on Japanese foreign policy, I think that the prime minister would be sympathetic to this vision of the region. Is Mr. Rudd capable of achieving this balance in Australian foreign policy?
I’m optimistic that he will. The need to balance the economic relationship with China and the security relationship with the US is bound to push Canberra in the direction of closer relations with other countries in the region that share this predicament.