Don’t mention the war

AAP/Alan Porritt

Whatever you think about the Abbott government, one of its more surprising features is that foreign policy looks like its strongest suit. True, this may not be setting the bar terribly high given the unproductive shambles that currently passes for domestic politics, but it’s still a surprise, nevertheless.

And yet even though critics might concede that it’s possibly exceeded expectations, the Abbott government continues to make unforced errors. A classic example of the genre occurred during what was otherwise taken as a successful visit by Japanese prime minster Shinzō Abe.

Did Tony Abbott really need to say this about the role of Japanese troops during World War Two?

We admired the skill and the sense of honour that they brought to their task although we disagreed with what they did. Perhaps we grasped, even then, that with a change of heart the fiercest of opponents could be the best of friends.

Not only did such comments upset some ageing diggers with first-hand experience of the ‘skill’ of Japanese troops, but the remarks also predictably outraged the Chinese. Anyone with even a vague understanding of intra-regional politics and the depth of feeling about Japan’s wartime roles in China (and Korea) ought to have known that this was the inevitable consequence of Abbott’s remarks.

There is no doubt that China finds Japan’s failure to adequately and definitively come to terms with its wartime role a convenient diplomatic weapon with which to beat its regional rival. But Japan gives them plenty of opportunities to do so.

The fact that we’ve all heard of the Yasukuni Shrine, know that it contains the remains of Japanese war criminals, and yet still merits high-profile, provocative visits from successive Japanese prime ministers is a reminder that Japan, too, can score its fair share of diplomatic own goals.

The point to emphasise is that such international insensitivity is driven by powerful domestic forces and a preoccupation with a narrowly conceived sense of the national interest. The ability to define the historical record is an important part of this process, as the region’s continuing ‘textbook wars’ demonstrate.

A generation of Japanese children knows little about its wartime role, while their Chinese counterparts are brought up to see the Japanese as brutal aggressors who can never be trusted.

Nevertheless, the Chinese do have cause for feeling aggrieved about an issue they still take extremely seriously. How would our other new ‘best friend’ – Israel – have reacted if Abbott had said similar things about the role of the German army, for example? The point is that there was simply no need for Abbott to get involved in an issue that only northeast Asians can really sort out.

Unfortunately, it is indicative of a general pattern of behaviour.

To take another recent high profile example, the seemingly unilateral decision by attorney-general George Brandis to reject the use of the term ‘occupied’ to describe East Jerusalem is another egregious example of unnecessary self-inflicted damage. The reaction from a number of Arab states was both predictable and entirely avoidable, and reinforces the impression that the government may be both thoughtless and complacent about its standing in the world.

Equally troubling, however, is the possibility that Abbott and Abe actually see eye-to-eye on the importance of ‘correctly’ interpreting history. After all, we have our own long-running history wars in which Abbott has been a relatively marginal but not unimportant player. As prime minister he has the opportunity to play a much more decisive role.

Abbott’s conviction that the role of Australian troops in World War One is insufficiently recognised is a key example of this possibility about which we may expect to hear more in this anniversary year. What some see as the entirely pointless slaughter of millions, Abbott sees as an expression of national character and identity.

Bravery and patriotism ought not to be the issues, however. The point is to understand the causes of such conflicts and to ensure they do not happen again.

The horrors of 100 years ago do have relevance for today, though, as no less a figure than Julie Bishop has recently observed. One lesson is not to give a blank cheque to nationalist allies who may be in danger of becoming embroiled in a conflict in which you have no direct stake, and can make no difference to the outcome.

This is, of course, precisely what we have done with the alliance relationships with the US and by extension Japan.

Japan’s transformation into a peaceful nation with a strong culture of anti-militarism is remarkable and to be applauded. It is arguably its greatest contribution to an international order that is currently being rattled by increasingly provocative policies of China and Japan. But from an Australian perspective there is little to be gained from encouraging one at the expense of the other.