SYDNEY — All sweetness and light, plus a dash of pay dirt. That about sums up the three-day foray into Australia by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. A free-trade agreement, or FTA, got no further than free-talking. A security protocol including the United States as a third party came a few steps closer. Canberra stayed coy on environmental protection through the Kyoto Protocol, and Japan was not badgered over whaling in the South Pacific.
Even cynical Canberra watchers agree it was an all-smiles coup. This first call by a Japanese leader in five years returns the courtesy of regular visits to Tokyo by his Australian counterpart, John Howard. Although the stops at Canberra and Sydney were hurried before a flight to Wellington, they were surely among the most productive of Koizumi’s swoop around Southeast Asia. The timing of Koizumi’s trip could have been questionable — as it came so soon after Anzac Day, when Australia honors its war dead — but not the results.
Only when Koizumi inspected the shell of a World War II Japanese submarine in Canberra’s war museum did a few aides glance sideways. The midget sub was one of three that invaded Sydney Harbor 60 years ago this month. The bodies of four young Japanese sailors were later cremated with full military honors and their remains sent home to their families. Although some locals protested the tribute — what with news of the deaths of 8,000 of 22,000 Australian prisoners of war in Japanese Army camps still vivid — the Australian Navy commander at the time said: “These men were patriots of the highest order. How many of us would be prepared for one-thousandth of the sacrifice that these men made?”
Speaking at a Parliament House lunch, Koizumi recalled how former Prime Minister John Gorton welcomed the widow of one of those submarine sailors. “I can’t think of any other people who treat the soldiers of their enemies with so much civility and generosity,” Koizumi said. “I think the relationship between Japan and Australia really epitomizes this kind of spirit.”
The China card appeared after the two leaders’ talks got around to supporting a three-way security dialogue with the United States. Howard had to be positive about Beijing, as he is due there later this month. On his agenda is a huge Chinese power plant that Australian and Japanese partners of a North West Shelf gas consortium want to supply. Cautioning against “negative connotations” regarding China, Howard urged reporters not to misread agreed support for U.S.-Japan-Australia security talks: “It is merely a natural expression that we have a number of security interests in common.”
Equally guarded, Koizumi reminded the press of “serious constitutional constraints” on Japan’s military activities. This served to caution Canberra against enthusiastically prodding Tokyo to step up its peacekeeping role abroad, which at present includes a small Japanese group in the Australian-led U.N. stabilizing force in East Timor.
All was chummy until it came to Australia’s wish-list leader, an FTA. Not for a moment did Canberra expect Koizumi, beholden as his precarious grip on power is to the Liberal Democratic Party’s farm lobby, to give a nod to the kind of FTA Australia seeks. Even Japan’s first FTA, the newly signed deal with Singapore, excludes agricultural products, a key plank in the Canberra platform. With two-way trade worth $40 billion, Australia wants to revitalize the flow.
Other countries’ realism in the international food business invariably costs Australia big time: Witness the latest congressional vote in Washington for a multibillion dollar handout to inefficient farmers. Trade Minister Mark Vaile plans to mount a case before the World Trade Organization, challenging the $73 billion boost in U.S. farm subsidies. But that threat will evaporate as soon as Washington dangles the carrot of a U.S.-Australia FTA.
“Let’s be frank, Koizumi’s lightning visit has not produced anything at all in the way of substance,” wrote a reporter for the national daily, The Australian. “But it is still valuable and welcome.”
Double-talking Koizumi did not impress the Canberra press conference with his rehashing of the old Tokyo line about the need for food security. So the reporters turned to Howard. He conceded that an FTA failed to reach the stage of an official communique. He then added that such a document often is useless anyway because the language is so broad: “Communiques are important, but I think the spoken word of political leaders is just as important.” Really?
The two partners did approve the start of FTA talks between Tokyo’s and Canberra’s bureaucrats. Ashton Calvert, head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, will be back in Tokyo soon to kick these off. The hope is that a reformist Tokyo minority may eventually agree to a phased removal of agricultural barriers that weans the Diet off the subsidies-for-votes mentality, leading to a more efficient rural economy.
Maybe Australia has settled too cozily into the two-way trade that for 50 years has brought prosperous growth to both partners. The “old firm” will continue to do good business, but the trust must grow deeper, especially with China surging into the Australian scene.
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