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The bond of the sea: Japan, Australia and China

By Warren Reed - posted Thursday, 8 August 2019

History is full of ironies as well as surprises, depending on how deep you dig and the angle you're viewing it from. Here are three stories that illustrate the point. Each in its own way highlights the importance of knowing the back story rather than just a present day one-dimensional interpretation of it.

An early phase in the Australia-Japan relationship, for example, is the cooperation extended to Australia by the Japanese government during the First World War (1914-18). This was in the area of naval patrols and convoy escorts. The way in which the Japanese, a close ally of the British at the time, helped Australia was fresh in the minds of Baron Nobuaki Makino and his delegation when they walked out of the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. They had been demeaned by an ebullient Australian, Prime Minister Billy Hughes, when the Japanese put forward a Racial Equality Proposal as a basic principle of the new League of Nations. Hughes was having none of it and backed by the British, successfully defeated it.

Japan's naval protection of Australia's coastline in WWI came at a time when Tokyo was keen to establish closer relations with our newly founded Commonwealth. It was not the first time though, that Japanese naval vessels had visited our ports: a goodwill mission came here in the 1880s. That marked a new era of official contact, one that helped Australia significantly when shipping was our only transport link with the outside world. Japan then had the most powerful naval fleet in the Pacific. A decade before, in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) it had defeated one of the world's powers, Russia.


The wartime cooperation began soon after hostilities broke out in Europe, when the British-built Japanese battle cruiser Ibuki assisted British and Australian warships in escorting the first convoy of troops from Australia through to Aden in 1914. Later, other Japanese cruisers patrolled almost all of our territorial waters, including those around Papua New Guinea. The greatest assistance came in 1917 when three Japanese cruisers and eight destroyers escorted our troopships across the Indian Ocean, while other Japanese warships escorted our cargo vessels on the Fremantle-Colombo run. Cordial relations prevailed between officers and crew, many having been trained at Dartmouth Naval College in Britain. There was also a full and open exchange of intelligence.

Australia's fear of German raiders was realised when a converted German cargo steamer, the Wolf, arrived on the scene. It was almost as well armed as a cruiser, with heavy guns, torpedo tubes, several hundred mines and a seaplane at its disposal. Her presence created havoc, as did another famous raider, the Emden. One night in 1917, the S.S. Cumberland, an Australian steamer carrying cargo for southern Australian ports and for Europe, struck a mine laid by the Wolf off Gabo Island near the NSW-Victoria border. The Chikuma, which was at Jervis Bay with her sister ship Hirado, rushed to the Cumberland's aid, covering the 160 miles in nine hours against heavy seas. Chikuma's crew quickly checked the steamer's condition and sent down a diver to examine her damaged hull. Much of its cargo was salvaged before it sank.

Japan's invaluable contribution to our security, and the camaraderie between both sides, was long remembered until the events of WWII cast a shadow across the scene. Today, the two countries again share a close relationship, though this time round it's a much broader-based one than could have been imagined a century ago.

That earlier period also gives rise to a second historical story, one that brings China's current contention with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands into perspective. In 1919, a Chinese fishing boat, some sixteen metres long and powered by sail rather than steam, was operating in Japanese waters off those islands. Hailing from Fujian Province, it was carrying 31 men, mainly from the one family, with the eldest aged 60 and some between 11 and 16. A typhoon struck, which seriously damaged the vessel and to save it the crew cut away the mast to avoid capsizing. The storm raged for over a month, with the boat drifting helplessly. Eventually, with no improvement in the weather, they found themselves again within sight of the Senkaku Islands. But their boat sank and the crew took to three small dinghies they had on board.

They carefully made their way to the Islands, where Japanese fishermen from a settlement there spotted them, and at great danger to themselves set out to rescue the Chinese. They were looked after by the Japanese and their health restored until the storm finally abated early in 1920. As a result, no lives were lost. The headman of the Japanese settlement took them in his fishing vessel to Ishigaki Island, which is part of the Japanese island chain stretching from southern Kyushu to Formosa (now Taiwan, but then Japanese territory). Ishigaki City was the administrative HQ for the area and was a centre of activity in Japan's southern-most Prefecture of Okinawa. The Chinese crew stayed in Ishigaki for some time until they were taken by ferry to the port of Keelung in Formosa. From there, they were repatriated to their hometown in Fujian on the China coast.

There were numerous communications about the rescue, between the Japanese mayor of Ishigaki and the governor of Okinawa, as well as with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs in Tokyo. Also in the loop was the Chinese Consul in Nagasaki in Kyushu, who wrote a remarkable seven official letters of gratitude in Chinese on behalf of the Government of the Republic of China. All key Japanese involved in the rescue and repatriation of the Chinese crew were thanked and all expenses incurred by the Japanese reimbursed. A gratuity was also included by the Chinese government in appreciation of the assistance the Japanese had rendered.


All official documentation raised at the time in both languages still exists in the Japanese archives. The letter from the Chinese Consul to the headman of the Japanese settlement in the Senkaku Islands was lodged by his eldest son in the museum in Ishigaki City in the 1990s. There was no dispute at the time over the fact that the Senkaku Islands were Japanese territory. As with most international events, there is usually an interesting human story in behind the official façade. The bond between fishermen, as with naval crews, is a powerful one and they usually help each other out first and let someone else worry about the politics later.

A third historical story comes from the pen of Gregory Clark, an eminent Australian and long-time resident of Japan. It illustrates just how complicated back stories can be. A former Australian diplomat trained in Chinese, Japanese and Russian, Clark was briefly The Australiannewspaper's first correspondent in Tokyo. It was from there that he organised Australia's participation in China's 1971 "pingpong diplomacy", which led to Canberra's recognition of Beijing. Clark later moved into an academic career in Japan, jointly founding the very successful Akita International University. His 1968 book In Fear of Chinaplayed a significant role in changing Australian foreign policy in the region and it would be hard to name any Australian who knows Asia as comprehensively as he does.

In an article titled "China: Maritime Expansionist?" in July 2019, he addressed the call for Australia to cooperate with the US in countering what some people regard as Beijing's expansionist activities in the South China Sea. He points to a great irony: it was the US itself in its 1951 San Francisco peace treaty with Japan (signed and ratified by Canberra and 47 others) who in effect gifted most of the South China Sea Islands – the Spratly and Paracel island groups in particular – to China. The US, he points out, organised a separate document with the Republic of China in Taiwan (via a 1952 Taipei peace treaty) making it even clearer that these islands should be taken from Japan and in effect given to China.

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About the Author

Warren Reed was an Australia-Japan Business Cooperation Committee scholar in the Law Faculty of Tokyo University in the 1970s. He later spent ten years in intelligence and was also chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. He served in Asia, the Middle East and India.

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