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Australia's foreign-policy juggling act

By Greg Barns - posted Thursday, 14 September 2006

For a middle-ranking power like Australia, the art of foreign policy necessitates a finely tuned ability to balance potentially conflicting interests. And that's particularly the case when it comes to maintaining friendly relations with the two giants of Asia - China and Japan.

Australia's relationships with Japan and China have so far been unaffected by the recent bout of feuding between those two countries. But that may be about to change: Australia is keen to reinvigorate its relations with Tokyo, through the 30th anniversary of the signing of its friendship treaty with Japan in June, and the election of a new Japanese prime minister this month.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer announced last month that Canberra was keen to explore closer defence ties, and to start talks on a free-trade agreement, with Tokyo.


The leading candidate to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi when he retires this month is Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe - who is keen to strengthen the Australia-Japan relationship. He talks of an "enhanced strategic dialogue" with Australia, and wants to hold annual summits where countries that share the values of freedom and human rights - such as Australia, the United States and India - meet to discuss "co-operation from a strategic point of view".

While Mr Abe says he wants to smooth the troubled waters between Japan and China, he still refuses to say whether he will continue Mr Koizumi's practice of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine each year. If he does visit this controversial war memorial, then you can expect Beijing to remain hostile towards its near neighbour.

Australia just wishes the Yasukuni controversy would go away. As long as it remains on the agenda, there is always the risk of Beijing becoming irked at Canberra about a closer Japanese-Australian relationship.

Australia might, as a consequence, want to think carefully about the extent of its participation in Mr Abe's proposed summit involving India, the US, Australia and Japan. China is already displeased about the annual US-Australian-Japan security and defence talks, which were upgraded last year to the ministerial level.

Whereas Japan and the US, for varying reasons, see China as a potential threat and destabilising force in the region, Australia does not. It views China in a constructive light, and is beginning to reap the economic benefits from taking that stance.

It's unthinkable that Australia should be forced to make a choice between Beijing and Tokyo. Most Australians are supportive of Japan: as a large economy and democracy, it has been an extremely important friend and partner since the late 1950s. But it will take some delicate footwork by Canberra to continue to extend the hand of friendship to both Japan and China - if tensions between these two powerful nations are worsened by Mr Abe's actions.


As Professor Purnendra Jain of the Centre for Asian Studies at the University of Adelaide observed recently: "Australia has never in the past juggled with so many diplomatic balls."

So far, Canberra has, on the whole, been able to stay under the radar of Sino-Japanese tensions. But if Beijing views Australia as backing a more nationalistic and strident Japan, then that juggling act might get out of control.

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First published in the South China Morning Post on September 5, 2006.

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Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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