Japan could be a force for stability

Even the Abbott government’s harshest critics would have to concede that when it comes to foreign policy, at least, they’ve been a bit unlucky. The Chinese government’s decision to suddenly up the ante in its territorial dispute with Japan might have been predictable enough at some stage, but the Coalition can feel justifiably aggrieved that it’s happened on their watch.

At least the relationship with Japan is in good order, right? Indeed, Tony Abbott assured the Japanese that they are ‘Australia’s best friend in Asia’. What could possibly go wrong? The answer, unfortunately, is quite a bit, depending on how Japan responds to China’s recent provocative actions.

AAP/Karis Salna

The good news about Australia’s relationship with Japan is just how much it’s changed in a relatively short time. It seems almost unbelievable that there are still elderly Australians who can remember what it’s like to be imprisoned by the Japanese. The big lesson here is how much bilateral relations can change for the better if the circumstances are propitious and there is goodwill on both sides. The contrast with Sino-Japanese ties is stark and instructive.

One of the most important debates in contemporary international relations is about the relative influence of geopolitics over geo-economics. Australia’s relationship with Japan is testimony to the pacifying influence of commerce. Despite the occasional concerns about the impact and nature of Japanese investment, for decades now policymakers across the spectrum in this country have recognised that the relationship with Japan has been a positive thing for this country’s economic development and even its place in the region.

Part of the reason Japan and Australia are so friendly is because neither has a natural or intimate partner in the Asian region. Japan’s relationship with the region continues to be refracted through events that occurred decades ago, as its still problematic ties with China and South Korea remind us. As we know only too well, Australia has also had problems defining its relationship with the region at times. The other thing that unites Australia and Japan, of course, is the depth and centrality of their strategic relationship with the US.

This is where things could get a little trickier. One of recurrent refrains of America’s policymakers is that their allies do a little more ‘burden sharing’. Australia’s offer to establish what will effectively be a permanent American base in Darwin is one symbolically important expression of this, and one that the Coalition has enthusiastically endorsed.

America’s relationship with Japan is more complex and ambiguous. The US was responsible for designing the ‘peace constitution’ that notionally places major limitations on the role and size of Japan’s military. And yet the US has long encouraged Japan to take greater responsibility for its own defence. Of late, this wish has been granted by recently-reinstalled premier Shinzo Abe, who seems bent on finally making Japan a ‘normal’ country.

Should we be celebrating? This rather depends on who we are. It is possible to argue that while Japan remained preoccupied with its own economic development and intent on keeping a low international profile it actually offered a powerful role model and exemplar for those of us who hoped that countries might subscribe to something other than the standard rich nation-strong army formula.

There are worse things to be challenged by than a neo-mercantilist ‘trading state’ bent on economic domination. Indeed, it’s not possible to understand the entire East Asian ‘miracle’ without recognising the pivotal role played by Japan as an economic partner and even role model. China’s remarkable transformation arguably owes as much to Japan as it does to its integration into a ‘Western’ international economic order dominated by the US.

Worryingly, China has chosen to focus rather more on Japan’s geopolitical than its geo-economic significance. Economic integration has not erased China’s long-standing and at times, diplomatically useful, sense of indignation about Japan’s wartime record. Unfortunately, Japan is beginning to respond in kind as its policymakers try to look ‘strong’ in the face of provocation from an old foe.


It hardly needs to be said how potentially catastrophic any conflict between Japan and China could be. Even more alarmingly for Australian policymakers, it is one in which this country might feel obliged to take sides, perhaps even participate. This is, after all, what Australia has done in every other major conflict in the region.

Apart form the very obvious damage this might inflict on the participants in any conflict and their mutual relationships, there would be another long-term casualty that might get lost in the chaos. Japan’s post-war development really has offered an historically unprecedented, overwhelmingly positive example of a country that has reinvented itself and the social values that inform its identity and actions.

A repudiation of militarism and a collective aversion to war are remarkable achievements. If we are to have a best friend in Asia, these are arguably admirable and attractive qualities. For all the criticism that is occasionally heaped on Japan, it has been model of social and strategic stability in a frequently fractious neighborhood. Those urging Japan to return to a pattern of ‘normal’ state behavior, should be careful what they wish for.