CANBERRA OBSERVED by national correspondentNews Weekly
Media circus obscures foreign policy initiatives
, July 19, 2014
The wall-to-wall media coverage of the new senators taking their seats in Parliament — the possible alliances between them, their reactions to government initiatives, Clive Palmer’s 10-minute address to the National Press Club, and the utterly predictable debate on repeal of the carbon tax — has obscured the far more important events connected to the recent visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and restoring good relations with Indonesia.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott
Since the 1950s, Australia’s relationship with Japan has been overwhelmingly economic: with Australia a reliable supplier of raw materials, most importantly iron ore and coal, and Japan a major source of manufactured goods, including cars, computers and other high-technology goods.
The expansion of trade with China over recent decades has reduced Japan’s relative importance as a trading partner, although it remains one of Australia’s largest.
Since his re-election as Prime Minister of Japan in 2012 — Mr Abe served an earlier term in 2006-07 — he has set about fundamentally reshaping Japan. On the domestic front, to get the Japanese economy moving, he has reversed the policies of previous governments.
His economic agenda involves lifting government spending on infrastructure and cutting interest rates to stimulate economic activity, in a bid to reverse nearly 20 years of economic stagnation.
Internationally, he has responded to the strategic challenges brought about by China’s emergence and the decline in American power in north Asia, by embarking on an activist foreign policy designed to build alliances with the democracies of the region, including South Korea and Taiwan, and seeking to build strategic partnerships with Australia and India.
In the face of China’s more aggressive international policy — with its claims on the whole of the South China Sea as far as the Philippines and the coast of Vietnam; the establishment of an air exclusion zone in the East China Sea; and deployment of military forces in the vicinity of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands — the Japanese Prime Minister has responded strongly.
Mr Abe also sought to revise or broaden the interpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, in order to permit Japan to deploy its military forces overseas for defensive purposes.
Late last year he also announced a five-year plan to expand the Japanese defence force with the goal of making Japan capable of defending itself without American support, if necessary.
He has shown a strong interest in building a strategic relationship with Australia, hosting a high-level visit by the our Prime Minister to Japan last April.
Early in July, Mr Abbott hosted a visit by Mr Abe to Australia, during which time the Japanese leader signed a trade agreement with Australia, addressed the national Parliament (a rare honour previously given to the U.S. and Chinese presidents), and held bilateral discussions over the full range of economic and security interests.
The content of Mr Abe’s address to the Australian Parliament was remarkable. One of the few media commentators who analysed the speech, on the ABC’s The World Today, described it as “extraordinarily frank”.
In it, the Japanese Prime Minister — who has been accused of whitewashing Japan’s military aggression in the 1930s and 1940s — frankly acknowledged his forebears’ terrible responsibility for what happened in World War II. He said, “Our fathers and grandfathers lived in a time that saw Kokoda and Sandokan”, which were places of infamy in the war.
He added, “How many young Australians with bright futures to come, lost their lives? And for those who made it through the war, how much trauma did they feel, even years and years later, from these painful memories?
“I can find absolutely no words to say. I can only stay humble against the evils and horrors of history. May I most humbly speak for Japan and on behalf of the Japanese people here in sending my most sincere condolences towards the many souls who lost their lives.”
He then said that the peace vow that Japan made after the war “is still fully alive today. It will never change going forward.”
He said that deepening economic and defence ties had led to a new era in the relationship between the two nations and called for the vast seas and skies linking the Pacific and Indian oceans to be “open and free”.
“In everything we say and do we must follow the law and never fall back into force and coercion. When there are disputes, we must always use peaceful means to find solutions.”
Separately, the government has built a strong relationship with Indonesia, the first country which Mr Abbott visited after being elected Prime Minister last year.
Despite past differences, the close ties prevented relations with Australia becoming an issue in Indonesia’s elections, so that relations with the next President will be as strong as those with the retiring President Yudhoyono.