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Taking a stance against strategic pessimism

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On my first meeting as prime minister with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, I described Japan as “Australia’s best friend in Asia.” Some months later, Abe deftly rescued me from the difficulty that had created by upgrading the friendship between Japan and Australia to a “special relationship.”

Abe’s subsequent visit to Australia and historic address to our parliament — in English — was a high point in our nations’ friendship. It is a special relationship because it’s not based simply on shared interests but also on shared values.

Japan learned the right lesson from World War II: not to be stronger, so that it could win the next war; but to be better, so that a war should never need to be fought. From the Emperor down, Japanese people underwent a change of heart: no less hard-working, meticulous, respectful or proud of country than before; but now much more conscious of responsibilities toward others at home and abroad.

The difference, it seems to me, between prewar and postwar Japan is a much greater acceptance of the universal moral norm to treat others as you would have them treat you.

Australia and Japan can have this special relationship because we are both committed to freedom under the law, democratic pluralism and a rules-based world order that gives all countries the chance to flourish. It’s these shared values that lend an intimacy to friendships between nations that shared interests alone can never quite match.

My hope is that Australia and Japan can be a force for good in our region and in the wider world, not just by promoting countries’ common interests but also by fostering values that other countries might come to share over time.

After all, our two countries haven’t always been like-minded; there is the very dark episode in the history between us — but we’ve come through that to be countries that threaten no one and are helpful to everyone who’s prepared to work constructively with us.

Both Japan and Germany committed atrocities during World War II for which they have rightly felt deep shame. Australians were among the victims.

Both Japan and Germany, however, have been exemplary international citizens in the years since and have shown not the slightest tendency to militarism or expansionism. To treat them as if nothing has changed in 70 years is to use history as a weapon, not a teacher.

In 1957, the laying of a wreath at our war memorial in Canberra by Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi (Abe’s grandfather) and the finalization of a trade treaty showed both our countries’ determination to look to the future, rather than to dwell on the past.

We have been industrial partners since the 1960s with joint ventures in coal and iron ore followed by car manufacturing; and if Japan wins the submarine bid, Mitsubishi will be returning to Adelaide.

We became military partners in Iraq in 2005 and concluded a joint declaration on security in 2007. The latest example of that trust is the submarine partnership that Japan is prepared to enter with Australia.

For Japan, this submarine deal is strategic; for the other bidders, it’s commercial. Japan is offering to build a long range version of its Soryu submarine for Australia. This is the world’s best large conventional submarine and is specifically designed to match the nuclear submarines of other nations.

Japan’s willingness to share defense technology of such sophistication — and the United States’ willingness to work with both Australia and Japan on the installation of the most advanced weapons systems — is a sign of the complete confidence that our countries have in each other.

It shows that we regard conflict — or even serious tension — between us as almost unimaginable. Yet only 75 years ago, Australia and America were waging total war against Japan.

This is an example of change for the better … that time, different experiences, and magnanimity has wrought.

We know that the fiercest of foes can become the best of friends because that is precisely the transformation that has taken place between Australia and Japan. The challenge is to foster similar transformations elsewhere in our region.

In 2014, not only did my government finalize the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (China’s first with another G-20 economy) but we also upgraded our relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” (joining 10 other countries with such status). While we now have more flights from China than from any other country and while our economy is more closely tied to China’s than to any other, it’s still an “interests” partnership rather than a “values” one.

China is not only Australia’s largest trading partner — it is the U.S.’ and Japan’s too — as well as a potential strategic rival. China has prospered because the government relaxed restrictions on private property, and the resultant products could be sold abroad for a good price into the expanding markets of a world largely at peace.

That peace rests on the basic principle that each country recognizes every other country’s territorial integrity. Some countries might be stronger than others; but no country has more rights than others. That’s why the South China Sea has become a potential flash point.

Like many other countries, Australia does not take sides on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere but we do insist that they be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law. We deplore all unilateral alterations to the status quo; and we expect to exercise freedom of navigation in accordance with the well-understood rules.

Over the past 18 months, Australia has quietly increased its own air and naval patrols in the South China Sea.

There should be consequences when countries, even very powerful ones, don’t play by the rules; but likewise there should be benefits when they do. As prime minister, I took the view that the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was an opportunity to encourage China to be part of a rules-based world order.

Making the most of the rise of China is one of the really big challenges of our time. A China that demands that its territorial integrity be respected should be prepared to concede the same respect to others. Provided like-minded countries — such as Australia, Japan and the U.S. — are up front with China about our expectations and firm when they’re not met, tensions should be manageable. One day, perhaps, other countries will find what China does no more unsettling or potentially coercive than they do the acts of the U.S.

With dialogue and with goodwill, America and China could be partners as much as rivals. China’s participation in trilateral military exercises with the U.S. and with Australia in the Northern Territory; and China’s participation with the U.S., with Japan and with many others in the RimPac naval exercises is a good counter-point to strategic pessimism.

Eight decades ago, almost no one could have predicted that Japan would be a liberal democracy in the closest possible alliance with the U.S. It’s hard right now to envisage China as a liberal democracy with an independent legal system — but who predicted even China’s economic transformation 40 years ago?

More than anywhere else, postwar North Asia demonstrates that we should never put limits on what we can achieve. We can do even better in the next 50 years, provided we continue to put more faith in our hopes than in our fears.

Tony Abbott is a former prime minister of Australia. This article is derived from a speech he gave at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo on Feb. 26.