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A flurry of Chinese and Japanese diplomatic initiatives

Updated On: Mar 13, 2007

China and Japan are reaching out into different regions recently.

Japan is making inroads into Oceania through security pact and impending free trade talks with Australia while China is making headway with Middle Eastern diplomacy.

Japan’s military outreach to Oceania’s regional power of Australia is controversial. Other than the fact that it rankled domestic sensitivities amongst patriotic WWII veteran, it has also raised the hackles of China and South Korea. 

The security declaration "will mean that our security relationship with Japan will be closer than with any other country, with the exception of the United States", Australia PM Howard told the Japanese media in Sydney before embarking on a four-day tour to Tokyo. Indeed, the pact will be groundbreaking as it is only the second of its kind that Japan has signed, the other being with the US.

Officially, the joint security declaration is aimed at the fight against terrorism and disaster relief. John Howard reiterated that the security pact should not be seen immediately in only military terms, but rather in terms of “emphasising the joint interests we have in security and our strategic relationship”.  He also brushed aside concerns about the impact of the declaration on Australia’s ties with China. "We have a good relationship with China and I don't believe for a moment that this declaration is going to damage our relationship with China."

While the military aspect has gotten cozier, Australia free trade talks with Japan is trickier. Japan’s powerful agriculture sector wanted their sector to be excluded from the FTA negotiations. Howard, however, reiterated his opposition to a such request saying that "I don't think it's a good idea at the beginning of negotiations to talk about concessions". The FTA talks are due to start on 23 April 2007 and both countries had agreed that talks would begin with all product and issues on the table.

Australia is also engaged in early talks for an FTA with China, which Mr Howard has labelled 'not an easy negotiation', needing hard work on both sides.

Far away from Oceania, China is basking in international spotlight again as it exudes charm diplomacy with Arab states. It all began when Saudi King Abdullah made his first overseas trip after assuming the throne, bypassing America and flying to China instead. Chinese President Hu Jintao returned this great honour and later visited Dubai as well. Such newfound warmth is mainly based on economic complementarity. Since Sept 11, Gulf governments and business communities have shifted their attention away from the US and look more actively at partners in Asia and Europe instead.

The relationship could not have worked better. As much as US$20 billion have been invested by the Gulf countries in China in 2006 while China has sucked up what is the region’s most important commodity as the world's second largest oil consumer. Gulf investors are also attracted by China's rapidly growing economy where returns have outpaced those in the developed world. And they can safely do their investing activities without what they perceived as anti-Arab bias in the US after the Congress voted to force a Dubai company to sell its ownership of American port operations in 2006. 'If you can't go to the US, you have to go somewhere else,' said Mr Beshr Bakheet, a Saudi investment adviser. 'People want to do business but (the US authorities) are making their lives difficult.'

Some see this latest round of diplomacy as the beginning of the Gulf nations moving away from the US. Middle East leaders want China to play a bigger role in stabilizing the region as the PRC is seen as a neutral party to the region’s conflicts and a candidate for regional countries to diversify their security dependence away from the US, especially after the augmentation of ill feelings against the US after the invasion of Iraq.

Not to be outdone, Japan’s PM Abe is considering his own round of Middle East diplomacy in possibly April or May 2007. The Abe administration is contemplating bold moves that complement the desire to mark the importance of Japan in world affairs, including plans to broker a peace deal between Israel, Palestine and Jordan, touting its credential as a party more acceptable to Middle Eastern rivals in comparison to the US which is widely perceived as having vested interests in the region.

Abe’s initiative is actually a follow-up to plans proposed by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2006 to provide economic assistance and promote cooperation in the region, including plans to build an agro-industrial park on the West Bank jointly with the private sector.  (12 March 2007)

Sources:

Howard defend security pact with Japan (Straits Times, 12 March 2007)

Japan, Australia to launch FTA talks in Canberra (Japan Times, 10 March 2007)

Australian PM dispels fears about security pact with Japan: reports (Channelnewsasia, 10 March 2007)

China and Arab states forging closer links (Straits Times, 9 March 2007)

Japan plans 4-way Middle East meeting (Reuters, 26 Feb 2007)

Abe considering trip to Middle East (Japan Today, 26 Feb 2007)