The visit to Japan by Australia’s Labor Party prime minister, Julia Gillard, reminds us that Australian foreign policy has never been known for its consistency.

She will, of course, go out of her way to talk about Japan-Australia friendship. But for many years Canberra was strongly anti-Japan. At the Tokyo war crimes tribunals it sought to impose the harshest punishments possible. Its 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty determination to force Japan to give up all prewar territorial acquisitions did much to create the Northern Territories dispute with Moscow and the Takeshima dispute with Seoul.

In exchange for agreeing to a peace treaty it demanded and got the U.S. to agree to a treaty – the ANZUS Treaty – to counter feared future Japanese aggressions – a detail many prefer to forget nowadays.

Even as Australia’s trade dependence on Japan grew in the 1960s and 1970s, conservative governments in Canberra refused Tokyo’s requests for a friendship and commerce agreement. Anti-Japan bureaucrats also blocked the 1975 efforts by the more progressive Whitlam government for a similar agreement. They said it was a plot that would allow Japan to dominate the Australian economy ( I know because I was there, even if Canberra has since air-brushed this disgraceful affair from the history of the agreement finally reached in 1976.)

Meanwhile a love affair with Beijing was developing under Whitlam, thanks to the 1971 ping-pong diplomacy breaking the ice imposed by the previous conservative regime. Diplomatic recognition of Taiwan was ended. Active political, cultural, academic and trade relations with China were pursued.

A foreign minister, Alexander Downer, even went so far as to suggest that Australia would not be obliged by the ANZUS Treaty to join the United States in any conflict with Beijing over Taiwan.

But now all this has come into shuddering reversal. Japan is the flavor of the month, and China is being moved into the potential enemies list. This, despite China’s enormous trade importance, and the refusal of Japan’s farm lobby to accept a free-trade agreement with Australia.

Canberra has recently negotiated a military assistance pact with Tokyo. It is looking for other military cooperation areas, including basing U.S. troops in northern Australian, which fits in neatly with Japanese conservative hopes for a Japan – Australia – India alliance against China.

Relations with the U.S. dominate Canberra’s policies; Australians still feel very dependent on the large Pacific neighbor that once rescued them from Japanese aggression. The dominating Murdoch press works hard to prevent any deviation from a pro-U.S. line. Even the leftwing apparatchiks in the allegedly leftwing Labor Party are cooperative, as we now discover from cables released by WikiLeaks showing how they consulted with U.S. officials in staging the coup which saw Gillard replace the former somewhat pro-China and independent minded Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Gillard has since gone out of her way to show solidarity with the U.S., promising to keep Australian troops in Afghanistan to the very end. One is reminded of an earlier prime minister, Harold Holt, with his embarrassing 1966 slogan ‘All the way with LBJ’ to show Canberra’s determination to stay with the U.S. in Vietnam till the very end.

Vietnam showed the other face of Australian diplomacy – a deep but immature fear of Asian threats. Many think Canberra’s strong military presence in that war was the result of U.S. urging. In fact it was if anything the opposite, with a concerned Canberra leaning on Washington to make sure it remained militarily involved in Asia till the very end. Canberra had convinced itself that the Vietnam war was, in its own words, the first stage of a Chinese military thrust southward between the Pacific and Indian oceans and towards Australia. Only the U.S. could stop that thrust, it believed.

(In 1964, when stationed in Moscow, I saw first hand some of the immaturity and ignorance behind these anti-China attitudes. Arguing that the Chinese were “bad” communists and the Soviets were “good” communists the then foreign minister, Paul Hasluck, came all the way from Canberra to persuade Moscow to join the West in opposing the alleged Chinese “thrust” in Vietnam. Recovering from the shock of this bizarre request, then Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin leaned across the Kremlin green baize conference table to tell Hasluck how committed Moscow was to the cause of Vietnamese liberation and how he wished the Chinese would do more to help.)

Despite eventual defeat in Vietnam, Canberra’s diplomacy in Asia has remained obsessed with alleged threats and militarily commitments. In 1975 it gave Indonesia the green light to invade East Timor fearing that a communist threat might develop there. It went all the way with the U.S. in distant Iraq. It talks much about involvement with Asia but left it to distant Europeans with a conscience – the Finns, the Dutch and the Norwegians plus Japan’s former senior U.N. official, Yasushi Akashi, to try to broker settlements in difficult conflicts like Sri Lanka, Aceh, West Irian, Kashmir and Cambodia. It has preferred often simply to go along with arbitrary U.S. terrorist designations which have worsened the brutality of these conflicts, as we saw only too well in Sri Lanka.

It talks earnestly about educating young Australians into Asia. But the Australia-Japan Foundation, which some of us did so much to establish in the seventies as a vehicle to get young Australians into Japan for work and study, has been allowed to lapse. Only once has Canberra ever had a Japanese speaker as its ambassador to Japan.

But I doubt if any of this will worry Julia Gillard greatly. She has already admitted her lack of interest in foreign affairs. Cherry blossoms, tsunami victims and maybe yet more talk about closer military cooperation with Japan and the U.S. will be her main concerns.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat, and Canberra-based policy adviser. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www gregoryclark.net where further details of Japan-Australia relations can also be found.

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