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Sudden switchbacks mark Canberra’s ties with Tokyo

by Gregory Clark

The “Odd Couple” was the title of a long-running TV comedy in the 1970s about two divorced men, Felix and Oscar, who come to share a Manhattan apartment. Felix is neat and tidy. Oscar is sloppy and casual. The clash of lifestyles entertained the audiences for years.

The Japan and Australia relationship seems similar. Both are fairly loveless in Asia; Japan is currently arguing with every one of its immediate neighbors and Australia does little better.

Both cling to the United States for emotional support. The ups and downs of their relations over the years have been impressive.

Australia got the ball rolling when its notorious anti-Asia White Australia policy led it to deny Japan’s claim for racial equality at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference.

Japanese militarists used this racist denial to justify the anti-Western policies that led to the 1941-45 Pacific War, in which Australia was a major victim.

That in turn led to a belligerent Australia trying at the 1951 San Francisco Peace Conference to have Japan stripped of all territories claimed by others, the southern Kurils (now called the Northern Territories) claimed by Moscow in particular. Canberra argued with some percipience that any disputed territory claims left undecided would be used to encourage a revival of Japanese revanchism. It also demanded and got a special treaty with the U.S., the ANZUS Treaty, to defend itself if and when Japan turned militarist again.

But the ANZUS ink was hardly dry when Canberra decided that the real enemy in Asia was China, not Japan. Canberra went on to condemn Beijing as being responsible for the Vietnam War — for using Hanoi as its “puppet” in its drive south toward Australia between the Pacific and Indian oceans. It set out to encourage a sometimes cautious U.S. to get even more involved in Vietnam.

There was also the bizarrely secret 1964 attempt to get Moscow involved, with an Australian foreign minister traveling all the way to the Kremlin to convince the Soviet leadership that since China had already shown its expansionism against Soviet Sinkiang (sic), Moscow should join the West in preventing further Chinese expansionism in Vietnam. (Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin had to educate him on how Sinkiang had long been part of China, that there was no way Moscow would withdraw its support from the “brave Vietnamese people fighting U.S. imperialism” and that it wished only that China would do more to help.)

The next move was to help create APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) designed originally as an anti-China trade bloc in Asia (for details see gregoryclark.net/lifestory/page4/page4.html) That was followed by Canberra’s weird attempt to ban Australia’s participation in the all-important 1971 ping-pong diplomacy designed to open China to the outside world.

Fortunately some of us were able to persuade the Australian team to ignore the ban and go to China. The publicity for the trip combined with Beijing’s warnings of trade retaliations during the visit helped the progressive Labor Party under Gough Whitlam finally gain power in 1972 and offer long-denied recognition for Beijing.

But this meant that Japan could again be the target for suspicion. Working in Canberra in 1975, I saw close up how our hawks were able to convince the Whitlam government that an innocuous Japanese proposal for a treaty of friendship and closer business relationships was in fact a devious Japanese plot to take over Australian resources.

That, combined with Australia’s growing resources nationalism, put relations on the back burner until a conservative government came to power in 1976. But even then there were problems. A Japanese proposal for its elderly to be allowed to retire to Australia was condemned as yet another Japanese attempt to infiltrate the nation.

Relations have continued up and down ever since, with a Japanese ambassador to Australia claiming publicly that white Australian attitudes still permeated Australia’s attitudes to Japan, and with Tokyo axing proposals for a uranium enrichment plant and Multi-Function Polis, which would have done much to revive the stagnant South Australian economy

Now, following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Australia in July, we have been told that both nations have entered something called a “special strategic relationship.” Tokyo wants allies for its China-containment policies.

Specifically it wants support for its Senkaku Islands confrontation with China — a confrontation that it seems deliberately to have provoked by reneging on its 1972 agreement with Beijing to shelve dispute over ownership.

Canberra, under its previous government headed by the Chinese-speaking Kevin Rudd, had tried to steer a mid-course between Beijing and Washington. Now it vigorously supports the stronger Japanese military posture in Asia, which it so purposefully set out to deny at San Francisco in 1951 with its formerly strong support for having Japan’s war and military renouncing Article 9 inserted in Japan’s postwar Constitution. Canberra today says Japan is not the militaristic Japan of the past. It approves the moves to allow Japan to engage in “collective self-defense,” forbidden by Article 9.

But has Japan changed?

There was a reason for Article 9 to be imposed on Japan and not postwar Germany. There was something special in the Japanese makeup that encouraged the especially brutal and insane militarism from which Australia, more than most at San Francisco, had suffered.

What Canberra should have said is that Japan has a nation-tribe emotionalism and malleability that allows people easily to be persuaded in directions decided by the national mood.

The wartime mood had allowed brutality and irrationality. Postwar, it had encouraged a strong pacifism and gentleness. Today we see yet another shift in the ease with which Tokyo can use territorial and abductee disputes for a military-oriented mood.

As in prewar years, those who appeal to reason to counter those moods are easily ignored, ostracized or worse. Japan has not changed. But at least we usually know how and where Tokyo is headed. It is the Felix in the odd couple.

With Canberra it is often impossible to find either rhyme or reason.

Why should it be going so far out of its way to jeopardize its crucial trade relationship with China, now much greater than that with Japan?

And why the ability to switch so suddenly from anti-Japan to anti-China to suspicion of Japan and then back to pro-Japan and anti-China? Relations with its other main Asian neighbor Indonesia are equally bumpy.

At base, Australians are either suspicious of Asia, or apathetic, even to Japan (the exception is the military, which never misses a chance to set up another agreement with Japan).

As I write, there is not a single Australian media person covering Japan, apart from the official Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Even the Murdoch press, which was loud in its support for Canberra’s pro-Tokyo shift, has pulled its regular correspondent out of Tokyo.

Every now and then Canberra announces yet another official inquiry to promote nonofficial relations with Asia, language training and study especially. But within a year the proposals are forgotten. Young Australians wanting to get involved with Japan still have to rely on their own efforts.

The Australia-Japan foundation which I helped to establish in 1975, has been allowed to run down. It is now headed by an ex-bureaucrat unable even to speak Japanese.

The Abe visit resulted in a proposal to set up a Tokyo University chair of Japan-Australia studies. But we have seen all this before.

To show Canberra’s special interest in Japan, a special scholarship in the name of former Prime Minister Paul Keating was set up in 1995. It would allow a rising young Japanese academic to do postgraduate research at the Australian National University and serve as a future bridge for economic studies between the two nations. The result? The extraordinary selection of a quite unqualified secretary from a small Australian office in Tokyo whose activities in Japan the selection people wanted to disrupt.

The young lady disappeared on arrival in Australia, yet today none of the organizations involved at the Tokyo or Canberra end want to admit to any responsibility for, or even knowledge of, an affair carrying the name of a former prime minister. But no doubt Oscar would understand.

Gregory Clark formerly served in Canberra’s foreign ministry and department of prime minister and Cabinet. He has since resided mainly in Japan where he has worked in media and university education. A Japanese translation of this article will appear at www.gregoryclark.net

  • zer0_0zor0

    Apparently, international relations in East Asia are no more stable than the “Floating World”.

  • Malcolm Kennedy

    This is an extremely negative article. Completely ignoring the major breakthrough of the recent free trade agreement between Japan and Australia. In the words of Tony Abbott Prime Minister “Japan is Australia’s best friend in Asia”.
    It’s a pity Prof Clarke doesn’t use his great experience, to build relations between our two countries, rather than to dwell on past negatives.