Revenge, Australian style

by Gregory Clark

Australia at times does some contradictory things in its foreign affairs. It says it seeks a global role, yet it recently dismissed a prime minister, Kevin Rudd, partly because he had been too prominent in seeking a global role. It says it is proud of its role in creating the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and of its close relations with China. But in its 1970s origins, APEC was an anti-China concept designed to have Japan look toward the Pacific nations and away from both China and Russia.

Australia bitterly criticizes Japan for its whaling activities, but few know that back in the Tokugawa days, Australian whalers battled Japanese troops for the right to invade the small Hokkaido town of Akkeshi in search of food and drink. And even fewer are aware of Canberra’s involvement in the creation of two of Japan’s current territorial disputes — with Russia over the southern Kuril Islands (including Kunashiri Island, recently visited by Russian president Dmitry Medvedev over strong Japanese protests) and with South Korea over the island of Takeshima (also the subject of strong Japanese protests).

How does distant Australia manage to be so involved in Japan’s territorial disputes? Here we need to go back to the immediate postwar years when anti-Japan feelings ran high among Australians. They had seen their northern city of Darwin destroyed by Japanese bombing. Japanese invasion forces were stopped only by desperate man-to-man battles in the New Guinea jungles. Its war prisoners had been badly treated. So, in 1951 when it was time to conclude the San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan, Canberra was unsparing in its demands that Japan should be stripped of any and all territories in dispute with other nations. Failure to do so might allow a future revival of Japanese militarism, it was claimed. It also demanded and got a treaty with the United States — the ANZUS Treaty — to defend itself against future Japanese attacks.

Documents released in Canberra some 25 years later showed the Australian negotiators at work in San Francisco. The U.S. and United Kingdom had earlier at Yalta in February 1945 promised Moscow that in exchange for a promise to attack Japan they would force Japan to hand over the Kuril Islands to the Soviet Union in any postwar settlement. Later in 1947 Washington secretly confirmed this promise, in exchange for a Moscow promise not to block U.N. Security Council approval for the U.S. to have trusteeship and military base rights in the Micronesian islands it had seized from Japan.

But by 1951 the Korean war was in full swing. Tokyo had mounted a strong campaign to be allowed to keep if not all the Kuril Islands then at least the southern islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri, together with the nearby islands of Shikotan and the Habomais — what are now known as the Northern Territories.

Washington in the shape of its rigidly anticommunist secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, seemed to vacillate. He seemed to prefer to leave those controversial Kuril Islands for later settlement. There was also a strong argument that said taking those “Northern Territories” away from Japan conflicted with the wartime Cairo Declaration that said postwar Japan should not lose territories it had not seized by force from other nations.

But Canberra would have none of it. It got the U.K. as head of the Commonwealth group at the San Francisco talks to pressure the U.S. As a result, Article 2 of final draft of the peace treaty, signed by Japanese Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, states unambiguously that “Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands.” Questioned in the Diet a few months later, the chief legal official in the Japanese Foreign Ministry confirmed that the Kuril Islands, which Japan had renounced, did indeed include Etorofu and Kunashiri. It was only later that Tokyo began to insist it had not renounced those two islands. By that time Canberra seemed to have forgotten its previous role, and began to support Tokyo.

And so the messy situation has continued, with Moscow agreeing in 1956 to return Shikotan and the Habomais in exchange for a peace treaty with Japan but refusing any concessions over Etorofu and Kunashiri. Meanwhile, Tokyo continues to deny the obvious fact that it renounced those two islands, even though its case would be much stronger if it could get Canberra and Washington to admit they had used improper pressure back in 1951.

At a recent Seoul conference on territorial questions we saw how Canberra also helped create the complicated Takeshima dispute between South Korea and Japan. A paper relying on detailed research by the Japanese scholar, Kimie Hara, pointed out how at San Francisco the initial drafts of the peace treaty had promised the island to South Korea. But after some frantic Japanese lobbying in Washington subsequent drafts were changed to say the island should remain with Japan. But then came the Australian move and the next draft treaty said once again that the island should go to South Korea. But then, allegedly as a result of the need to spare Japan “excessive psychological pressure” — presumably from Canberra over the Kuril Islands question — it was decided finally to leave the question in abeyance, where it continues to poison the Seoul-Tokyo relationship.

Meanwhile, the ANZUS Treaty has been turned on its head. It no longer defends against feared Japanese attacks, but rather, at least in theory, against China, the nation that suffered most from Japan’s attacks. Things can get complicated at times when Canberra is involved.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net