EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Australia and China: supping with the devil
, May 7, 2005
The Australian Government should stand by its traditional allies, the United States and Japan, and not seek short-term benefits by siding with China in regional disputes.Late in March, the Australian Prime Minister John Howard somewhat optimistically foreshadowed an Australian role as a bridge between China and the United States. In a foreign policy address to the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Mr Howard suggested that Australia could act as a go-between for the US and China to prevent a war over Taiwan.
He was speaking shortly after China passed its "anti-separation" law, which authorised the use of military force against Taiwan, which the US is pledged to defend. Mr Howard praised China's co-operation with the West against terrorism and North Korea, and said it would be a mistake to view conflict between China and the US as inevitable.
In relation to Japan, Mr Howard said that Australia had "no greater friend in Asia".
He said the "quiet revolution" in Japanese foreign policy, which allowed it to take on responsibilities in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq, was a "welcome sign" of a more confident Japan assuming its rightful place in the world.Even-handed?
However, during his recent visit to China to inaugurate discussions about a free-trade agreement with China, Mr Howard was adamant that Australia would not take sides between China and Japan, after Japanese businesses and diplomatic missions in China were attacked by demonstrators clearly acting with government support.
The ostensible reason for these attacks were Japanese school history texts which whitewashed Japan's aggression against China in the 1930s. But these texts are similar to those which have been in use for many years.
In any case, China's own sordid history of repression against its own people (including the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989), genocide in Tibet and fomenting of insurgencies in Asia from the 1940s to the 1970s hardly qualifies it to criticise Japan.
The real reason is more practical. Japan has undertaken a number of international actions in recent months which have aroused Beijing's hostility.
Among these are:
(1) Japan's warning to China after it enacted its "anti-separation" law which legalised war with Taiwan;
(2) Japan's attempt to secure a permanent position on the UN Security Council;
(3) Tokyo's exploration permits for oil and gas in disputed waters of the East China Sea; and
(4) China's concern at the development of closer relations between Japan, the United States and Taiwan.
Early this year, Japan and the US announced that stability in the Taiwan Strait is a "common security objective,'' the first time in the half-century of the US-Japanese alliance that Japan has made such a declaration.
Japan's willingness to incur Chinese wrath speaks volumes about Japan's concern both about rising Chinese military power and over how events could unfold.
It is interesting that at exactly the same time Japan and China were exchanging hostile words, Japan became China's largest trading partner, with two-way trade reaching $167 billion ($A215 billion) last year.
While China is an important trading partner of Australia's, it would be extremely foolish for Australia to side with China against either Japan or the United States, despite Chinese pressure.
Australia has a great deal in common with Japan and the United States, being nations with a shared democratic tradition (which China certainly lacks), long-standing commitment to international trade and development, and a willingness to rein-in rogue states such as North Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq under Saddam.
There is no evidence that China shares any of these values. Even in North Asia, where the arguments for co-operation can be made most strongly, China is closer to the Stalinist backwater of North Korea than it is to either South Korea or Japan.
At any time, China could disarm its secretive and paranoid communist neighbour which is constructing nuclear weapons, allegedly as a deterrent to attack by the United States.
The Wall Street Journal
recently reported that the Bush Administration in Washington had warned China, South Korea and Japan that North Korea could be planning a nuclear weapons test, leading the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to warn North Korea not to proceed.
In this cauldron of competing interests, it is vital that the Australian Government take a principled stance of standing by its long-term allies, rather than try to secure short-term benefits through exploiting regional differences.
Successive Australian governments have tried to secure economic benefits through foreign policy trade-offs. However, the consequence is to risk alienating traditional allies for little or no return.
Mr Howard rightly wants Australia to have good economic relations with China; but they should be secured on the clear understanding that Australia will maintain the close relations it has with the United States, Japan and other nations in the Asia-Pacific region, and that any trade agreement is in Australia's national interests.
- Peter Westmore is president of the National Civic Council.