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Australia and Japan signed defence pact as China, Japan spar again over disputed islands

Updated On: Feb 09, 2007

For a moment, China must have felt relieved as the US remains distracted in Iraq, with relations with Japan on the mend and Sino-Australia relations on firm economic footing.

This week's event developing along the US-Japan-Australia axis challenges China's comfort zone. But is it enough of a challenge to upset Beijing? Or to make Chinafeel that it is being encircled again?

The last time China felt this way was perhaps during March 2006 when Australia hosted the trilaterals with the attendance of the foreign ministers of US and Japan for discussions on regional politics in what some in the media saw as a de facto containment policy aimed at Beijing. Aware of China's economic prowess and importance for its own growth, Australia then repeatedly denied having such intentions. Foreign Minister Downer went out of the way to reassure the Chinese that the Australians had not targeted the trilaterals at East Asia' fastest rising power.

But this week's event put that Australia’s reassurance in doubt.  Not only did Australia host Japanese official but both countries signed a security pact, in effect a military alliance. Such a move was significant because Australia probably represented the last bastion of Western countries that remained sensitive towards any military ties with the Japanese due to the large number of war veterans who fought against the Japanese in the battlefields of WWII, and they remain as a powerful lobby group in Australian politics. Foreign Minister effectively put those anxieties at rest when he told the veteran groups to `move on' as Australia signed a pact with Japan in the name of the War on Terror.

Such actions hint at strategic ambiguity practiced by the Australians in their foreign policy and also its own internal conflicts about its identity. Keen to shake off the label of being the US's deputy sheriff, Australia has worked hard to move closer to the East Asian region. However, at the same time, it has on many occasions shown that its willingness to do Washington's bidding, creating suspicions amongst East Asian countries to the true intentions of Australia's strategic policy. Identifying itself with the West or Washington is probably nothing new, but this week's de facto military alliance with the Japanese, China's main geopolitical rival, is probably unexpected for Japan or Australia watchers in Beijing.

From Australia's viewpoint, Japan seems to be a logical choice. Along with Australia's surprising hardline stance against North Korea, a country whose missile program has do little to threaten Canberra, Australia has been very active in mobilizing support for UN sanctions on the Stalinist state. Japan appreciates that. Japan was most willing to go out of the way to lobby for the inclusion of Australia in the East Asian summit (EAS) despite protestations from countries like Malaysia or China which prefers to keep it as an exclusive club of Asian nations. 

The Tokyo-Canberra security pact must have made some in Beijing rethink whether Canberra can be trusted. Together with this development, Sino-Japanese tensions over the Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands have re-erupted again. Tokyo is unhappy about Beijing merely reiterating its position about the island's sovereignty and wants to press Beijing on providing an explanation for its action in deploying a research vessel in the disputed waters which was chased off after a warning issued by the Japanese coast guard. The Japanese government will take up the issue with China's FM Li Zhaoxing next week in Tokyo. All these comes at the heels of a planned meeting between Chinese leader Wen Jiabao and Japanese PM Abe Shinzo in Tokyo, a return of goodwill gesture after Abe visited Beijing as his first stop upon taking over as PM of Japan.

Even economically, Tokyo and Beijing seems to be experiencing some simmering rivalry. Hot on the heels of Washington's attempts to bring a third and possibly fourth case against alleged unfair Chinese trade practices in the World Trade Organization (WTO), Japan is now considering joining this action. Fearful of the rise of Chinese economic power, Tokyo Stock Exchange is now actively seeking alliance talks with the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) to forestall its vulnerability to Chinese competition from Hong Kong or Shanghai which are seen as fast emerging rivals to Tokyo Stock Exchange's dominance in East Asia. Nonetheless, it has to be footnoted here that another school of thought in Japan actually proposes an alliance between Tokyo and Shanghai stock exchanges in the argument that Shanghai a much better fit than NYSE for various reasons.

For now, it seems China's confidence over its management of international affairs and power projection may view such developments as irritants but not major challenges that require a rethink of its own policy orientation.   This is especially since Chinese leaders are concluding a highly successful high-profile tour of African nations, a tour of duty by the Chinese President which has re-introduced Africa to the world's stage together with the Chinese philosophy of development without strings attached. All throughout Africa, Beijing has signed a string of energy and resource treaties and deals in addition to offers of cancellations of debts for African nations.

Moreover, Beijing knows that Japan or the US still needs its cooperation in dealing with North Korea. Now that there is a slim chance for a breakthrough in talks, Tokyo or Washington may not want to rock the boat too much and upset Beijing. North Korea is asking for more fuel and revocation of financial sanctions but is showing some signs of compromise for a possible semblance of agreement. The last thing Washington needs is a nuclear North Korea proliferating its technologies to Iran in a region where it is struggling to put the house in order. Washington is playing careful strategic games as it grapples with its own vulnerabilities in the Middle East and so is Beijing as it grapples with a development first policy.   (8 February 2007)

Sources:

Japan, China spar over ship intrusion (Japan Times, 7 February 2007)

China warns Japan not to 'sensationalise' island dispute (Channelnewsasia, 6 February 2007)

Tokyo bourse pins hopes on alliances to fend off Asian rivals (Channelnewsasia, 5 February 2007)

Japan protests Chinese boat in disputed area (Channelnewsasia, 5 February 2007)

Australia-Japan accord 'not aimed at China' (Channelnewsasia, 5 February 2007)

Pyongyang to demand fuel oil at nuclear talks (Korea Herald, 5 February 2007)