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Is Japan Australia’s Best Friend in Asia?

04 Apr 2014
AIIA Fellows responding to the burning question of the week.

Expert Panel-Fellows of the AIIA

HilaryCharlesworthHilary Charlesworth FAIIA-Professor, ANU; Director of Centre for International Governance and JusticeProfessorJocelynCheyAMJocelyn Chey AM FAIIA-Visiting Professor, University of Sydney; former Consul-General in Hong KongJamesCottonJames Cotton FAIIA-Emeritus Professor at the University of NSWRawdonDalrympleRawdon Dalrymple AO FAIIA-Former Visiting Professor, University of Sydney; Chairman of ASEAN Focus Group LtdGraemeDobellGraeme Dobell FAIIA-Journalist Fellow, Australian Strategic Policy InstituteErikaFellerErika Feller FAIIA-Former UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection
Janet_HuntJanet Hunt FAIIA-Former Head of the Australian Council for Overseas AidJamesIngramAOJames Ingram AO FAIIA-Former Diplomat and Head of the UN World Food ProgramJohnMcCarthyAOJohn McCarthy AO FAIIA-Former Ambassador to Japan, Indonesia, the United States, Thailand, Mexico and VietnamRobertO’NeillRobert O’Neill FAIIA– Former Chichele Professor of the History of War, Oxford UniversityGarryWoodardGarry Woodard FAIIA-Former Diplomat and Senior Fellow, University of MelbourneRichardWoolcottACRichard Woolcott FAIIA-Former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade


Question: Is Japan Australia’s best friend in Asia? What advice would you offer the Prime Minister for his visit?

Garry Woodard FAIIA

As Prof Peter Drysdale notes in this week’s East Asia Forum, the usual formula is that we ‘have no better friends’.

Advice to the Prime Minister? Stick to his speech of 25 March, repeat it thrice.

James Cotton FAIIA

Nations do not have ‘best’ friends. Friendship implies trust and mutual reliance, whereas the best that can be hope from nations is cordiality, understanding, and possibly shared interests. In commenting on East Asia, no comparisons, explicit or implied, should be made between China and Japan since neither party finds them congenial. To lecture the Chinese – the inhabitants of the oldest continuous political system on the planet – on the need to improve their practices of government, however much such improvements might be thought better for all concerned, will only be perceived as impertinence. In navigating the rhetoric of East Asia, the government would be advised to revive John Howard’s highly astute formula, referring to Japan and ourselves as ‘the two great Pacific democracies’. This is at once an accurate characterisation, as well as one that places us in a particular and somewhat exclusive class.

Japan and Australia certainly enjoy a cooperative and generally beneficial relationship. However, those who would regard Japan as a ‘best’ friend would be advised, on their next trip to Tokyo, to visit the Yushukan museum in the grounds of the Yasukuni shrine. They would certainly find the version of the last 100 years of history presented there – in extensive illustration – profoundly disturbing, but one exhibit in particular would be bound to prompt deep reflection. In the capacious foyer, along with a Zero fighter aircraft, is a somewhat ramshackle steam locomotive. The descriptive plaque explains that it was found in the Thai countryside in ruinous condition, and brought to Japan for careful restoration. It is described as the engine that pulled the first rolling stock across the Burma railway. The human cost of that enterprise receives no acknowledgement.

Rawdon Dalrymple AO FAIIA

If “closest “ means the one with whom Australia has the most highly developed relationship, in economic, human and defence terms, it’s not easy to say which of Australia’s friends in Asia is the closest. Perhaps it would be Singapore. But that is a city state, albeit a very important and successful one, and probably wouldn’t be considered in the context of the question.

I would like to be able to answer “Indonesia” because of its size, proximity and the interests we share. But that relationship is too volatile to be regarded as “closest” without heavy qualifications.

China is the most important economic relationship we have in the world (despite the government giving that title to the United States) and it might in time become so engaged with Australia through trade, investment, educational, tourism and social links that we would come to see it as a friend. But that is hardly the case now with growing uncertainty about China’s intentions in the land and seas around it as it rapidly invests in expanding and increasing the power and range of its defence forces, and seeks again the dominant regional role it had for centuries up to the middle of the 19th.

I guess that leaves Japan with which we share an alliance relationship with the United States and substantial trade and investment links. And over the last fifty or sixty years Japan and Australia have developed a significant range of people-to-people links.

An important issue for the Prime Minister on his visit should be to look for ways of tapping in to Japanese naval and other technology and capacities in the context of the inevitable major investments in the RAN in the not too distant future. (The USN rates the Japanese naval self-defence force as the most capable and best trained navy in the region). The difficult and delicate issue will be striking the right note on the Diaoyu/Senkakus issue and crafting a shared position on Chinese assertiveness in the region. Whaling in the Southern Ocean is happily out of the way although as far as I know Abbott has never been a whale-hugger and would probably not have felt obliged to raise the issue. It would be courteous for him to thank Mr Aso for the Japanese government’s  gracious acceptance of the International Court’s decision.

I doubt whether the Japanese will give two hoots about the extraordinary decision to reinstate from history’s skeletons the institution of knights and dames. It is likely to puzzle them less and cause them fewer doubts about us than it will the Indonesians. Indonesians used to look at our flag and some other manifestations and ask “why is Australia still under England?”.

I guess they still do – or will again.


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