Japan and Australia are natural partners.

The trade between the two countries is essentially complementary. Australia supplies primary products such as natural gas, coal and a wide variety of foodstuffs to Japan, while Japan reciprocates with hi-tech manufactured goods. If Japan has too little room for its population, Australia has too much. While the Japanese countryside is concreted and dammed to the hills, with box-like houses everywhere you look, the Australian landscape is largely uninhabited, unspoiled and undomesticated. If Japanese tourists want to “go bush,” the colloquial Australian equivalent of “getting away from it all,” then Down Under is the place for them.

But, when it comes to Japanese-Australian relations, there is another meaning of the term “go Bush” — this one with a capital B.

The two countries have, in recent years, thrown themselves together in concert with the United States, willingly pounding the drums of war to the feverish timing of the acting conductor, President George W. Bush. Both Japan and Australia have committed troops to the American incursion into Iraq, and have identified their foreign policy goals as closely with America’s as is possible without dropping all pretence to independence.

Australian troops, sent to the front line in Iraq by the arch-conservative Prime Minister John Howard, are currently protecting Japanese Self-Defence Force units stationed near Samawah, some 260 km south of Baghdad. Australian government sources are wont to point out that, luckily, no troops on the Australian watch have been killed to date. But officials naturally fail to mention how many lives have been lost at the hands of those soldiers, some of whom are hand-picked from the country’s elite special forces.

This Australian bending over backwards to please the Americans and protect U.S. interests is not a policy contortion invented by Mr. Howard. Another conservative prime minister, Robert Menzies, eagerly committed Australian troops to the American intervention in Vietnam; and his successor, Harold Holt, is said to be the proud author of that iconic, if sycophantic, phrase of the 1960s, “All the way with LBJ.”

Subsequent Labor governments, particularly those of Gough Whitlam in the early ’70s and Paul Keating in the ’90s, distanced Australians from such gung-ho adventures and blind America worship and gained new respect for their country in Asian eyes: Perhaps Australia was no longer the region’s post-colonial deputy sheriff waiting in breathless anticipation for its commands from the man with the big badge in Washington, D.C.

Be that as it may, the fawning ins and courageous outs of Australian foreign policy vis-a-vis the United States over the past four decades have had minimal impact on the country’s strategic relations with Japan . . . until, that is, September 2001. George W. Bush’s smokescreen war on terror — a blatant ruse perpetrated to further the interests of the corporate America that maintains his power — has thrust Japan and Australia together and given them a new common military agenda.

Some Australian and Japanese officials may be happy that the two countries are acting in armed concert, complementing each other’s roles in Iraq. Doesn’t this, they aver, prove that the Japanese and the Australian peoples have something important in common? But step back for a moment and look at what this new partnership is based on: a commitment to American-fomented hostilities that are gradually being recognized, even in the United States, as misdirected and unsustainable.

The result of Japan and Australia being closely identified with this ill-conceived American policy of aggression is that the two countries have further isolated themselves from their neighbors in Asia, where they are once again fast becoming the odd men out. This is hardly a solid basis for a partnership that, in the long run, has the potential to bring harmony and reason to the region.

Enthusiastically doing America’s bidding only convinces the peoples of Southeast Asia that Australia has not abandoned its dyed-in-the-wool Anglocentric bias, and will never understand or faithfully integrate with the region in which it is located.

As for Japan, aligning its future even more closely with the United States merely underscores what in Korean and Chinese minds is a deep-seated fear: that rather than come to terms with their past and reorient their priorities toward the continent, the Japanese would prefer to huddle in the American corner waiting to lash out again with deadly force.

I don’t for a minute believe that either Japan or Australia truly represents a military threat to their neighbors. The leaders of their neighboring countries bill them as potential aggressors only in order to unite their populations in nationalistic pride, suppress political dissent and justify potentially profitable territorial claims.

But I do feel strongly that the correct foreign policy orientation for both Japan and Australia in this century is as moderators and mediators who use their powerful good offices, and their outside-edge geographical position, to bring stability to Asia.

No countries in Asia have assimilated and refined modern political and social thought and practice as successfully and profoundly as have Japan and Australia. Australia could put its first-class educational and social system, not to mention its native language, to effective use in the cause of Asian development. And, believe it or not, given the right political climate Japan could someday stand between America and China, interpreting the one to the other in the capacity of Ameliorator-in-Chief, benefiting enormously from the goodwill engendered.

For Japan and Australia to forfeit these opportunities in favor of the dubious honor of acting as second and third shield bearers to the U.S.A. is to invite misunderstanding and strife from neighbors and, at worst, the potential for destruction and tragedy in both East and West.

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