Toward the end of the 19th century, diplomat Manjiro Inagaki emerged as a brilliant geopolitical strategist for Meiji Era Japan.

The son of a feudal retainer of the Hirado domain in what is now Nagasaki Prefecture, Inagaki studied at Cambridge University before becoming a part-time professor at Gakushuin University. Inagaki went on to become a diplomat, serving as an official envoy to the Kingdom of Siam and then to Spain, where he later died in Madrid.

Inagaki penned, in impeccable English, the book “Japan and the Pacific, and a Japanese View of the Eastern Question (1890).” Here, Inagaki wrote: “It has often puzzled me why Japan does not hold closer relations with Australia, especially as Australia is becoming one of her most important neighbors in commerce.”

He stressed, “I can certainly predict that if both countries clasp hands, they will hold key positions in the future of the Pacific trade.” In essence, Inagaki was laying out a strategy for Japan as a maritime nation, which hinged upon securing the north-south sea lanes.

While Inagaki’s goals were partially realized through Japan’s alliance with Great Britain, the Japan-Australia partnership he had advocated went unrealized for a long time.

In the 1920s, Australia began to perceive Japan as the “northern threat,” while Japan resented Australia’s “White Australia” policy.

During World War II, Japan heavily bombed the Australian city of Darwin, and Japan’s wartime mistreatment of Australian prisoners of war remained a thorny issue in the postwar era.

A ministerial meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in 1989 marked a major turning point in Japan-Australia relations.

At that time, Japan feared that growing Asianism would divide the Asian and Pacific regions. Australia, meanwhile, was seeking recognition as a member of the Asian community. The coinciding ideals and interests of the two countries formed the basis for a new “Asia-Pacific regional architecture” in the form of APEC.

A quarter century has since passed. In July, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Australia, where he and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott issued a joint declaration regarding the new “special relationship” between the two countries: “The two leaders reaffirmed the contribution of their respective alliances with the United States to peace and security in the region.

“They also reiterated their strong support for the U.S. rebalance to Asia.”

Moreover, the two leaders “reaffirmed the importance of promoting the rule of law … [and] opposed any unilateral attempt to alter the status quo in the East and South China Seas by the use of force or coercion.”

It is abundantly clear that the joint declaration was informed by a shared awareness of China — and drew criticism from some in Australia for this reason. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser pointed to the folly of taking a hostile view of China, arguing that Australia would be supporting the losing side if it were to ally itself with the U.S. in any conflict with China.

“If America couldn’t beat Vietnam,” he said, “do you think they could beat China? Not one hope in a thousand.”

Behind such criticism of the “special relationship” between Japan and Australia lies concerns regarding Japan’s approach to its wartime history, including Prime Minister Abe’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine and the Abe administration’s handling of the “comfort women” issue concerning women forced into sexual servitude for the Japanese military before and during WWII.

An editorial in the Canberra Times titled “Our new special relationship not without its costs” noted that “Japan’s reluctance to confront and deal with its own military past makes many people, Koreans and Chinese in particular, doubt the sincerity of its motives, well-meaning though they may be.”

Nevertheless, Jennifer Lind, an associate professor at Dartmouth College who studies the handling of history issues in international relations, has high praise for Abe’s speech before the Australian Parliament: “Abe shows that he understands how the past must be handled in order to further important strategic goals. … Abe followed the playbook for reconciliation.”

I also believe that Abe’s speech was one of the best speeches given overseas by a Japanese leader.

Abe began by striking a conciliatory note. Demonstrating his desire to overcome the problems surrounding the wartime history of the two countries, he asserted, “We in Japan will never forget your open-minded spirit nor the past history between us.”

Abe went on to touch on the achievements of previous Australian and Japanese leaders: “When Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and Japan’s Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira said the creation of a Pacific community was a significant long-term objective, we built the cornerstone for APEC. …

“Visions always come from a latitude of 135 degrees east, do they not?”

Abe then adopted a bipartisan approach, praising former Prime Minister Julia Gillard of the opposition Labor Party: “Then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard stood motionless, with her upper lip tight, upon seeing the terrible sight of Minamisanriku [after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami]. I would like to express once more my sincere thanks for the leadership that Prime Minister Gillard showed.

“Furthermore, this is an excellent example, is it not, to show that Australia-Japan relations go beyond fences between political parties.”

In the pursuit of strategic goals, it is essential to reflect upon the past, honor the efforts made by previous leaders and demonstrate consideration for the position and sensitivities of one’s partners. Above all, leadership is essential.

Japan and Australia have made great strides toward achieving Manjiro Inagaki’s dream. To fully realize this vision, Japan must take further steps to deepen the trust of its Asian neighbors and firmly establish the process of reconciliation.

Yoichi Funabashi is currently chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and formerly served as editor-in-chief of The Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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