During Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s visit to Japan this week, Japan will be pressing him to sign the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), which is often referred to as a “nonaggression pact.”

Japan seems to find it hard to understand why Australia sees hooks in signing this treaty, such as possible complications with ANZUS, Australia’s alliance with the United States. After all, the Japanese will say, since TAC has been signed by U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, what is Australia’s difficulty?

In fact, the problem relates to a subject Japan doesn’t want to talk about — nuclear weapons. That’s because such discussion might expose the contradictions in Japan’s own nuclear policies. Japan claims to want to see nuclear weapons abolished, yet it shelters under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. While Japan can shield such sensitive issues from public debate, Australia cannot.

Signing TAC is a prerequisite for Australia’s entry into the East Asian Community, an expanded version of the ASEAN-plus-Three (China, Japan and South Korea). In recent visits to Australia, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi urged Howard to sign TAC. Malaysia will host the East Asian summit meeting later this year. For Malaysia to be apparently holding the door open is a switch. Malaysia’s previous prime minister, the prickly Mahathir Mohamad, had sought in vain to create an East Asia caucus without Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. — his “caucus without Caucasians.”

Japan and key members of ASEAN want Australia inside the East Asian Community to help balance an increasingly assertive China. For similar reasons, they also want India and New Zealand to join.

Despite the euphoria in Australia over Abdullah’s visit — the first by a Malaysian prime minister for 21 years — there was a sour note regarding TAC: Since “the treaty was delivered to the region by a mind-set that we’ve all really moved on from,” Howard said, “I don’t think it appropriate that Australia should sign.” That brought criticism from Australia’s opposition foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd.

This is an issue of bedrock security for Australia, not an issue of diplomatic finesse or free trade. And it is a problem that India and New Zealand do not have because neither is a U.S. ally like Australia. The difficulty for Australia has to do with the link between TAC and the Southeast Asia Nuclear Free Zone established by ASEAN in 1995. Even though this nuclear-free zone allows for the unimpeded passage of American nuclear-capable warships, the U.S. objects to it because the zone extends to the continental shelves and Exclusive Economic Zones of member states. Thus Australia’s signing TAC could conflict with U.S. alliance commitments to Australia.

Australia cannot be too candid about all this because it was instrumental in creating the forerunner to the Southeast Asia Nuclear Free Zone — the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, which was a consequence of New Zealand’s defection from the ANZUS alliance in 1984 when it refused to continue to let U.S. nuclear-capable ships visit its ports. At a time of heightened Cold War tensions, there was a threat that the “Kiwi disease” would spread to key U.S. allies such as Japan and Denmark.

So, in order to appease antinuclear constituencies at home, the Hawke Labor government helped form a nuclear-free zone in the South Pacific. Of critical importance was the fact that the zone allowed for the unrestricted passage of nuclear-capable warships. Thus Australia prevented a crisis in its own alliance with the U.S.

At present, it would be hard for Australia to say that the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone was OK but that the Southeast Asian one is not.

Moreover, nuclear weapons are very much part of the equations of power in East Asia, where the balance of power is brittle. That can be seen in rising Sino-Japanese tensions, as well growing tension between Japan and South Korea.

Nuclear weapons have shown their political utility in a way that is bound to make strategic competition in East Asia nuclear. North Korea, for example, has flouted its obligations to the international community and is engaging in dangerous nuclear brinkmanship. Would it be surprising, then, if the U.S. were to rethink the decision taken in the early 1990s to remove nuclear weapons from its surface warships and attack submarines?

Two years ago, Japan signed TAC, but with some reservations related to its U.S. alliance. That caveat remained below the radar screen.

While Howard may wish he had the benefit of cozy press clubs, such a recourse is not available to him. At home, Labor’s Rudd is enjoying a good run in the media by railing against Howard’s dithering. But few in Australia seem to have noticed that the Labor Party is trying to get around the difficulties it created for itself with the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone.

For that reason, Rudd is emphasizing the economic virtues of East Asian cooperation, pretending that security issues do not enter the picture. But, for Howard, this is an issue of strategic security that he must think through carefully.

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