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Strident Washington, compliant Japan and cautious Australia – containment and consequences

Updated On: Mar 24, 2006

Washington is clarifying its stance towards China.

A 49-page report urges Beijing on with reforms: 'Our strategy seeks to encourage China to make the right strategic choices for its people, while we hedge against other possibilities.' While on a visit to Australia, Dr Rice pointed to the possibility of a marked increase in China's defence spending and said Beijing 'should undertake to be transparent about what that means'. 'Ultimately, China's leaders must see that they cannot let their population increasingly experience the freedoms to buy, sell, and produce, while denying them the rights to assemble, speak, and worship,' it says. Though determined, US was eager to see a China that was strong as well. 'We want a region in which China is influential and is going to be more influential over the next several years, is more open in domestic policies and is more open in its face in the world.'

When Australia offered to host the trilaterals, it was perhaps not expecting such hawkish US stance towards China. Behind closed doors, Australia may be willing to be US’ deputy sheriff.  But upfront in the public arena, Australia wants to be diplomatic with China in view of their increasing political and economic ties. Rice's tough comments about China seem to have unnerve Canberra.

In a television interview designed to placate Beijing and not harm the important political and economic ties, Downer said: 'I think a policy of containment of Chinawould be a very big mistake.'  But the “harm” may have been done. 

Moreover, Australian politicians have sent mixed signals. Mr Howard made no comment on the emergence of China and, while Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has shown support for the US bid to manage the Asian giant, he has also assured Beijing it should not view this as an attempt at containment. On top of that, Australia is a willing partner in the US nuclear deal with India, another candidate widely seen as a potential containment partner. Mr Howard and Dr Rice yesterday said they had also discussed a US deal to supply India with nuclear technology in return for separating its military and civil facilities and opening the civilian plants to international inspections.

All these seem to come at a bad time, just weeks ahead of an expected visit to Canberra by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.  It would be interesting to see whatAustralia would do then to limit the damage and “win back” the confidence and trust of the Chinese

Australia was clear on what it wants. Behind closed doors, frank discussions are possible but not in the public arena where economic potential and diplomatic niceties are needed for the Oceanic nation increasing integration with Asian economies in the region.

While Australia appeared at least unwilling in the public arena to endorse any hawkish attempts by US to contain China, what about Japan?

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso, who met Dr Rice privately before the three ministers began their talks, wrote in an article in the Wall Street Journal this week that China's return to centre-stage in East Asia was welcomed as long as it evolved into a liberal democracy. Like Dr Rice, he urged Beijing to fully disclose its defence spending which he said 'remained opaque'. While Minister Aso’s views about China are rather clear and well-elaborated in this year of choosing an LDP successor to PM Koizumi, other political factions and powers-that-be in Japan may not be on the same page. Japanese industry cannot survive outside or even with a sullen Japan as partner. It needs to maintain its place inside this ongoing process of integration to avoid relegation in the supply chain. This explains why the chairman of the Nippon Keidanren (Japanese business federation) paid a visit on Sept 30 last year to China's President Hu Jintao, bypassing his own prime minister in the process.

Within Japan, opposition to the Yasukuni visits by PM Koizumi is quietly growing behind the scenes. In Tokyo, criticism against the Yasukuni visits was heard at the founding ceremony of the Asia Senryaku Kenkyukai, in which 41 LDP lawmakers took part. Lower House Speaker Yohei Kono, a pro-China lawmaker who has opposed Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni, said in his speech: "Prime Minister Koizumi explained that his visits to Yasukuni Shrine are a matter that 'belongs to the realm of the heart.' But can such an explanation convince other Asian countries?" Kono also said the chilly relations were behind Japan's failed attempt to gain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council last year. "Japan was unable to obtain support from its closest neighbors of China and South Korea. That was a decisive cause of the defeat," he said.

Sources:

US rebuke to China: Drop 'old ways of thinking' (Straits Times, 18 March 2006)

Hawkish US stance worries Australia (Straits Times, 17 March 2006)

JapanAustraliaUS hold security talks 'about China' (Straits Times, 18 March 2006)

Trilateral talks not just about China: Rice (Straits Times, 18 March 2006)

LDP group set up to improve ties with Asia (Asahi, 17 March 2006)