JULY 9, 2014

July 18, 2014

SHINZO Abe’s address to parliament yesterday signified the richness, depth and breadth of Tokyo’s relationship with Canberra. We have many shared interests and common ideals, from our open political systems, to competitive markets, free trade, human rights and the rule of law. It is a tried and tested friendship — built out of the ashes of a terrible, destructive war seven decades ago — because, as Tony Abbott reminded us, “our peoples and leaders refused to let the past blight the future”. Mr Abe offered Japan’s “most sincere condolences” for the deaths of young Australian soldiers during World War II, promising never to repeat the “evils and horrors of history”. But the historic moment was also testament to a more confident Japan, emerging from two decades in the economic doldrums and an imposed strategic rigidity via its postwar pacifist constitution.

A once-militaristic state, Japan has become an exemplary international citizen, one that has helped to promote stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. We are now seeing the assertion, as Japan wishes itself to be known, of a more “normal nation”. Of course, this bolder posture will be a test for Australian diplomacy, particularly in the way we deal with China, our largest trading partner. In a hard-edge editorial, China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, claimed Mr Abe was using Australia to “build a network against China”. As well, it argued that the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit “will create new instability in the Asia-Pacific region”. Such niggling and false statements may play well to a home audience, but they do not cut the mustard on a broader stage.

Beijing is amping up its rhetoric and aggression in several territorial clashes with neighbours, such as Vietnam and The Philippines. In disputed waters in the South China Sea, China has sent five oil rigs to an area close to Vietnam’s coast, to the consternation of Hanoi. Beijing is also in dispute with Tokyo over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands, with the Chinese air force launching hundreds of sorties into Japanese airspace. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop called in China’s ambassador to express concern over Beijing’s extension of a military zone there. On a subsequent visit to China, Ms Bishop was rebuked publicly. Mr Abe did not name China yesterday but he called for the vast seas and skies linking the Pacific and Indian oceans to be “open and free” and for disputes to be settled peacefully. “In everything we say and do we must follow the law and never fall back into force and coercion,” he said.

Mr Abbott used his trusty diplomatic phrase by declaring that “you don’t win new friends by losing old ones”. We welcome Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia and would like to see a further commitment of resources to that end; we’d also like to see the removal of trade barriers for our exports to China. It won’t always be easy to walk through the evolving diplomatic minefield, but the Prime Minister asserted that his government wants to improve all Australia’s friendships by focusing on the things we have in common. It is unremarkable that Canberra seeks to have strong and fruitful relations with Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, Jakarta, New Delhi and Seoul. For instance, 51 per cent of our trade is with China, Japan and Korea. Like Mr Abbott, we flatly reject the cartoon view of strategy propagated by the Australian National University’s Hugh White, who has obsessively peddled the phony notion that we must choose between our strategic alliance with the US and our economic ties to China. It’s a false path, asking us to urge the US to withdraw from the region for China’s sake.

As Mr Abe stated, Tokyo would like to see “no limits” on our strategic and economic partnership. Japan has played a key role in developing local industries such as iron ore, and its investment here is worth $126 billion — more than four times the value of China’s stake (which is less than US and New Zealand holdings). This is a vital partnership with vast potential — not only food, resources and energy — but cultural, educational and technological exchanges. As the two prime ministers write for us today, the latest trade pact, like a visionary deal 50 years ago, will bring prosperity and friendship to both nations for decades.

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