Japan, the United States and Australia last weekend held historic trilateral talks in Sydney to discuss their views of the region and the world. The three countries have a range of shared interests and concerns. Only by working together can they ensure that their strengths and diplomatic tools are used most efficiently to tackle regional and international problems. Fears that this new discussion forum heralds a new attempt to “contain” China are overblown. Containment is not a realistic option, especially since the three countries have made plain their intent to work with China so that it becomes a responsible international citizen.
The talks were occasioned by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s 10-day tour of Asia. The mere fact that she was taking that trip was good news: It (and the trilateral meeting) was originally scheduled for January, but was postponed when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke. Dr. Rice stayed home to ponder the consequences of his illness.
That decision reflected a worrying tendency: a downgrading of attention to the Asia-Pacific by the U.S. Last summer, Dr. Rice skipped her first ASEAN Regional Forum meeting as secretary of state, a gathering that her predecessor Mr. Colin Powell attended every year he was in office. The U.S. only last week named a replacement in Australia for former Ambassador Thomas Schieffer; the office has been vacant since he took up his post in Tokyo last year. Similarly, there was no U.S. ambassador in Manila for 10 months until earlier this month.
The statement, released after the meeting between Foreign Minister Taro Aso, Dr. Rice and their Australian counterpart, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, highlighted their “grave concern” about Iran’s nuclear program and called on Tehran to return to negotiations with the United Nations and the IAEA. They also called on North Korea to return immediately to the six-party talks and end the crisis created by that country’s nuclear-weapons program.
Iraq was another key topic. Coordination among the three governments is important since some of the 1,300 Australian troops deployed to the region are protecting Japanese Self-Defense Force personnel on duty in Iraq and have contributed to the success of that mission. As all governments with personnel in Iraq contemplate redeployment and withdrawal of forces from that country, close consultation is necessary to ensure that missions are not compromised and lives are not endangered.
Although China was just one item on the agenda, the content of those discussions was the subject of the most speculation and interest. The statement said China has a constructive role to play in the region and the three ministers endorsed “enhanced cooperation with other parties such as ASEAN and the Republic of Korea” to help Beijing do that.
While this language is not new — all three governments have repeatedly emphasized their desire to work with China — it is not boilerplate, either. China is, and will continue to be, a focus of regional interest and concern. And while every country in the region seeks to engage and work with Beijing, there are still concerns about China’s long-term intentions. Its military modernization program seems disproportionate to any regional threat. And while the recent tensions between Japan and China have many causes, China’s bellicose rhetoric and its diplomatic attempts to isolate Tokyo raise questions about Beijing’s readiness to engage Japan as an equal.
Even though the three ministers together and separately spoke of their desire to engage China, the convocation of trilateral talks has inspired feverish speculation about a new alliance to contain China. That will not happen. All three countries have profound and growing economic ties with China — each sees the country more as an economic opportunity than a military threat.
Much of Japan’s economic growth in the last few years can be attributed to China’s voracious appetite for imports. By 2004, China had become Australia’s third-largest export market and second-largest merchandise export market. The signing of an economic partnership agreement and long-term mineral resource contracts guarantee that the relationship will only grow stronger.
Most important, however, is the desire of all three countries — and others in the region — to see China emerge as a partner in the effort to build a peaceful and prosperous Asia in the 21st century. Cautioning China about the consequences of being indifferent to doubts about its intentions is not proof of hostility toward China. Nor is planning for the worst-case scenario. The governments in Tokyo, Washington and Canberra look to build constructive relations with Beijing and recognize that several issues have to be confronted before that is possible. Speaking with one voice about their concerns increases the chances that they will be heard and their warnings heeded.
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