PRIME MINISTER Tony Abbott has enjoyed favourable press this week, with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe visiting to sign off on the free trade agreement between Australia and Japan; the visit has been interpreted by some through the prism of potential confrontation with China, and what consequent course of action would best serve this country. Independence and isolation are not the same thing; if Japan and China come to blows, a choice will have to be made.
I’ve been reading an article from yesterday’s Fairfax press by its resident international affairs columnist (and prominent academic) Hugh White; his basic premise is that in striking free trade agreements with Japan and signalling increased co-operation with the Japanese in a range of areas including trade, defence and investment Australia risks damaging its relations with China, and needless to say this is presented with a distinct undertone of suggestion that these developments are a very bad thing indeed.
Perhaps unsurprisingly (we are talking about Fairfax, after all) it is also presented with a distinct “Tony Abbott is stupid” flavour to it, too. I’m not criticising White for his views, mind; we’ve certainly discussed his material here in the past and whilst I disagree with him from time to time I also do concur just as frequently. On this occasion, however, I beg to differ.
My remarks will be somewhat more cursory than I would usually devote to such a complex issue; I’m writing this piece after 3am (Melbourne time) and for a raft of reasons haven’t had as much time for posting content in the past week, as readers will already know. So do forgive me if some of my points are a little simplified — the thrust of my case will remain clear enough.
I have long believed that at some stage, China and Japan will come to blows and that when they do, that conflict will pose a very real risk of escalating into a global war — possibly involving the use of nuclear weapons — rather than, say, a regionally contained naval spat over the disputed Senkaku/Diayou Islands. Such a conflict is the last thing I would wish for, and any escalation is the last thing I (or anyone else with their sanity intact) would ever want to see.
Much has been made recently of the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and purported similarities between the political climate that existed across Eurasia at that time and the climate that exists there now, with the ongoing spat between Russia and Ukraine portrayed in some quarters as a potential ignition point for a conflict that could spiral out of control and drag the world to war again; I think that whilst anything is possible (and I’m not being flippant about it), those who concern themselves with such worries would be better advised to refocus their attention onto the situation that is unfolding in north-east Asia.
The parallels between the anniversary of the first World War and the current situation in the Pacific are striking, and not least because they involve a peace that has existed since the end of the second World War that, to be candid, has grown to appear a little wobbly, to put it diplomatically. Hugh White is absolutely correct in his assessment of the situation: China in recent years has started to throw its weight around in the region, and Japan — understandably, and perhaps predictably — has begun to move away from its post-war pacifism toward a military and security posture that allows for the active use of force in its own defence.
The Japanese occupation of parts of China between 1895 and 1945 — and the atrocities the occupying forces committed — continue to burn in the Chinese national psyche; on the Japanese side of the equation (as elsewhere in the world) the generation with direct memory of the second World War is ageing and literally dying. Even so, these two countries continue to regard each other with mutual suspicion and distrust, and whilst they will remain powerhouses economically for the foreseeable future, the military rise of China is unquestionable and that, too, will continue indefinitely.
Where I disagree with White — and remember, I’m an opinion writer on these matters, not an academic — is the unspoken but nonetheless undeniable suggestion he makes that somehow, Australia’s best interests would be served by not building closer ties to Japan, and remaining independent in the event of any conflict between Japan and China, as well as some of the other overt contentions he makes that conspire to show his position as a dangerous one indeed where considerations of the national interest are concerned.
And I’m not going to dignify his inference that Abbott is either too stupid or too incompetent to have “thought through” the implications of deeper ties with Tokyo with a rebuttal; such a cheap and baseless jab from a reputable figure doesn’t merit a response.
It is true that our country has almost limitless opportunities for trade with China. Almost every country does; China accounts for one-sixth of the world’s 7 billion people, and the sheer weight of numbers dictates that it has a large appetite for everything it can’t produce itself (which is most of what its people actually need to survive). This extends far beyond mineral ores to food, oil, motor vehicles, services like education, and beyond.
Even so, in peacetime I think it’s dangerous to “safeguard” opportunities with one country — irrespective of how lucrative the opportunities it appears to present might be — by limiting those with others. In the trade and bilateral relations sense, Japan is no different to other countries in the region with which Australia has burgeoning opportunities, such as Vietnam, Malaysia, South Korea and the Philippines.
Coincidentally or otherwise, these are also countries with which China is engaged in a series of dangerous territorial spats as it lays claim to most of the South China and East China Seas, and specifically to disputed lands, speculated oil fields and other resources these areas are believed to contain.
I don’t think Japan — in building stronger ties with Australia — is looking, as White contends, to gather allies to Japan’s side to join it in any future conflict with China; it doesn’t have to, for the United States is obliged to defend Japan should it ever come under military attack, just as it is to defend Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines and (let’s be blunt about it) Australia.
This leads to his other contention — that America appears reluctant to confront China on Japan’s behalf — which is true in the sense that America has no incentive, as at today’s date, to do anything of the kind.
America is faced with the same endless opportunities for trade and bilateral ties with China that most countries are: there is no point in Uncle Sam cutting his nose off to spite his face in the name of a pre-emptive warning over military mischief and sabre rattling that has amounted, in precise terms, to absolutely nothing to date.
China can indulge itself with belligerent gestures and bellicose rhetoric, vague threats of this or that, or even ridiculous gestures of passive aggression (such as its attempt to enforce an air exclusion zone over parts of the territory it disputes with Japan) to its heart’s content. America, and other interested countries, will rightly monitor these activities and develop contingencies against a range of potential escalations or outcomes. But until a nuclear-armed country with more than a billion people actually commits an act of aggression against a US protectorate like Japan, the Americans aren’t going to lift a finger. And, to be clear, nor should they.
White bemoans the “division of Asia into hostile blocs” and rhetorically asks whether it is in Australia’s interests to contribute to that. The fact is, however, that Asia is already divided into hostile blocs — basically, China in one bloc and the rest of the region, with a few exceptions, in the other — and nothing Australia does will alter or influence that. We need to remember that whilst Australia is respected on the world stage as a “middle power,” others will make their own strategic decisions in their own interests . China is the clearest example of this the world has seen for a very long time.
Whilst I have commented on these matters before I am generally reluctant to do so, because the last thing I want to be is either alarmist or to sound like a conspiracy theorist: I am neither. But when discussions such as this arise, they do warrant a hypothetical consideration of what the course of events might look like if the worst case scenario were to materialise.
None of this matters, in a literal sense, for as long as the security balance that currently exists remains unchanged. But for the sake of the conversation, what would happen if China were to occupy the Senkaku Islands?
This would, in fact, constitute an act of war and an attempt to seize the territory of Japan; it may or may not in itself lead to an outbreak of hostilities, but to make the point I wish to make, let’s assume it does.
In this eventuality, the US’ “reluctance” to confront China will immediately move from “perceived” to non-existent. As the US becomes entwined in the conflagration it will be dependent on facilities it shares with Australia that are based on our own soil for its military machine to operate effectively, accurately, and to minimise US and Japanese battle casualties.
And — as I have pointed out in the past — Russia is likely to come to China’s aid militarily, especially if the latter is faced with the prospect of nuclear conflict: China may possess nuclear weapons but their use is largely limited to its own neighbourhood, meaning in this case, Japan. Its capacity to hit US targets is limited to its submarine forces. But the involvement of the Russian strategic forces changes the equation completely.
And in that event, the importance of facilities such as Pine Gap to the US military would be absolutely critical — not that they wouldn’t be so at a far lower level of military engagement.
Yes, this is a doomsday scenario and a nightmare prospect, but the point is that a conflict over a few lumps of rock could easily escalate into exactly this situation. World War I was ignited by a peasant assassinating an aristocrat in Serbia. To dismiss the Senkaku/Diayous as worthless specks of granite that are too insignificant to start a war over is to ignore that a single political assassination 100 years ago provided the spark that set Germany at war with the rest of the world. And the generation of Japanese who directly remember what such a conflict (and its consequences) was like to endure is decrepit and dwindling in number.
If this scenario were to materialise, who would care about trade relationships with China? There would be no point worrying about offending China because we would be at war with it anyway — unless misguided pacifism and misplaced ideas about “independence” manage to stop Australia honouring its treaty commitments to the US.
Independence and isolation are not the same thing; it is one thing to desire that wars do not happen — I think we all hope for that — but another matter altogether to think that when they do, it is appropriate to run out on our mates and hide in the toilet while all hell breaks loose outside the bathroom.
If such a conflict were to erupt, we would need the Americans to defend us; this is a fact dictated by our small, conventional military forces weighed against the might of the Chinese and Russian goliaths. The presence of US military forces on Australian soil makes any pretence of neutrality or “independence” moot. We would be a target.
And provided there was actually a world left once the shooting had stopped, we’d need the US to guarantee our safety — for the same reasons. Proclaiming our “independence” and doing nothing is a recipe for post-war isolation, and if it ever came to pass would leave Australia vulnerable to invasion and conquest.
As unpalatable as it might sound, if China and Japan come to blows, this country will have to choose: China or America. This is what it boils down to. And if the choice (God forbid) ever has to be made, then the only logical side to take is the side of the USA, Japan, and like-minded partners and allies across the free world — irrespective of the riches that otherwise beckon as fruits of trade relations with a China that we remain mute to avoid offending.
And in turn, this is why what Abbott and his government have been working towards on trade with Japan — irrespective, but cognisant, of the peripheral issues and their attendant risks — is not only the right thing to do, but it should be encouraged, not chastised.