The election of Kevin Rudd as prime minister of Australia last month gives that country an excellent opportunity to broaden the base, and redefine the tenor, of its ties with Japan.

Under the regime of the conservative John Howard, the relationship between Australia and Japan took on a narrow focus, putting strategy and security within the confines of U.S. foreign policy at the center of the bilateral tie. Australia and Japan can, with some foresight on Rudd’s part, enter a new bilateral era. Let me explain.

World War II left a legacy of bitterness in Australia that was not as quick to dissipate as it was, for instance, in the United States.

When I first arrived in Canberra in 1972 to teach Japanese at the Australian National University (ANU), I was taken aback at the degree of anti-Japanese feeling in the general population. For example, Japanese cars were not welcome in parking lots of clubs run by the country’s leading war veterans’ organization, the Returned and Services League of Australia.

When, as a result of the oil shock in 1973, the Japanese government was unable to fulfill its contracted commitment to purchase Australian beef, I acted as interpreter for the talks held at the Ministry of Primary Industry in Canberra. The Australian side was very understanding of Japan’s dilemma. Both great relief and, I believe, gratitude were felt by the Japanese delegates for that understanding. Wisely, a long-sighted view of the relationship was taken by both sides.

But many farmers were up in arms at what they saw as the reneging of a promise. When Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited Australia in 1974, he was vociferously picketed by irate farmers.

At least one farmers’ group from northern New South Wales had the decency to phone the Department of Japanese at ANU and ask if it would be impolite to hold up signs in Japanese asking the prime minister to reconsider Japan’s decision to purchase less Australian beef. Though irate at their treatment, they displayed a certain cultural sensitivity.

Despite these few hitches, relations between Australia and Japan only continued to improve and grow. Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam signed the broad-based Cultural Agreement in 1974, and two years later the Basic Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation came into effect. Trade grew by leaps and bounds from the mid-1980s onward; and, on the occasion of Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating’s visit to Japan in 1995, the Joint Declaration on the Australia-Japan Partnership was issued.

This is what Rudd should take into consideration: that his Labor Party predecessors have put great store in this all-important and far-ranging North-South relationship. Two things began to sideline this relationship during the Howard years beginning in 1996. First, the rise of China.

In the late ’90s, it certainly looked like Australia, with its commodities-based economy, was going to be left behind in the high-tech IT boom that was sweeping the world. Predictions were rife of a country of quarry diggers and sheep shearers sinking behind the leaders of the new world economy. Along came the China boom and the shriveling of the IT bubble; and, lo and behold, Australia, with its coal, iron ore and uranium became the darling of day traders.

Australian political leaders, economists and journalists began to turn their gaze away from Japan toward China. (The Sydney Morning Herald withdrew its last Tokyo correspondent in 2006.) The Australian economy went from strength to strength, though on a very lopsided pedestal whose feet were firmly planted in the resource-rich soils of Western Australia.

The second thing that happened was 9/11. John Howard happened to be in Washington, D.C. that day in 2001. He made the decision that the U.S. antiterror campaign would be his very own and aligned Australia so closely to the U.S. in his policies that then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking a few years later, in November 2005, claimed that the U.S.-Australian relationship could “not be firmer.” This came about because Howard equated the security of his own nation with the radical strategies of the Bush administration.

There is no need to downplay the importance of the United States in terms of Australia’s interests, and Rudd has made it very clear that he has been a close and caring ally of the U.S. for many years. But Australians should no longer continue to see their interests solely in terms of narrowly defined strategic and security issues.

In this context, the Australia-Japan tie needs a fresh approach. By the ’80s, postwar anti-Japan sentiment had all but faded away, and Japanese had become the most popular foreign language in Australian schools and universities. Not so any longer. There was also a time when Japanese tourists were flocking to Australia, becoming the largest group of foreign tourists there.

Not so any longer. Yet not everything has changed.

According to the Foreign Ministry, Japan is still Australia’s “largest overall trading partner,” first in exports and second in imports. And most tellingly, an opinion poll conducted in 2006 in Australia showed, when compared with a similar poll of 1998, a 20 percent decline in the view of Japan as “a country which is culturally different from Australia and difficult to understand.”

The Japanese, thankfully, have lost much of their inscrutability, at least in Australia.

Rudd is sure to take steps that will broaden Australia’s image in Japan as an independent-minded, creative nation. If a referendum is held in 2010, as has been mooted, on whether Australia should become a republic — and Australians opt for this choice — then I believe Japanese will come to see Australia for its own unique, rich culture separate from that of its old “home country,” namely the United Kingdom.

By giving Australia a foreign policy less linked to the United States and breaking the monarchical tie to the United Kingdom, the Rudd government will send out the signal that Australia is a separate and independently minded nation.

The fact that Rudd is an expert on China should in no way be interpreted as a factor inhibiting ties with Japan. On the contrary, he could put Australia-Japan relations on a new and broader footing, while at the same time turning himself into a great statesman in the Asia-Pacific region by offering his good offices in helping steer Japan, China and Korea, both North and South, in the direction of genuine reconciliation and deeper cultural interaction.

The relations between Australia and Japan are excellent, and both peoples have a very positive view of each other. But recent years have narrowed the focus of the bilateral tie and there has been, if not a stagnation, at least a lull in its development.

Labor prime ministers in Australia have had, in the past 35 years, a commitment to Japan that has been far-reaching and significant. The new prime minister has the opportunity to revive that commitment and build on it for the good of every country in the Asia Pacific region.

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