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Partisan divide on China comes at a dangerous moment

Date

Peter Hartcher

<i>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.</i>

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.

To now, the government and opposition have agreed on how Australia should deal with China. That agreement fell apart this week.

It fell apart after the leader of Japan, China's arch-rival, came to town.

The end of the national consensus means that relations with the world's great rising power are now open to domestic politics as Labor and the Liberals each seek partisan points.

At the most dangerous moment yet in China's return to the centre of global affairs, Australia's main parties have chosen to shift the relationship from the uncontested zone of politics to the boxing ring. But, oddly enough, the partisan divide didn't open up over anything in the visit itself.

The moment of conflict came as Australia braced pre-emptively for harsh words from China.

Over decades, Australia has conditioned itself to expect and to fear criticism from Beijing. Australian elites anticipate Chinese anger, and usually grant it an automatic righteousness.

A sympathetic US observer of Australia, Mike Green, an Asia expert with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and formerly an adviser in the Bush White House, says: "It seems to me that within the Australian national character it's a source of intense sensitivity to try to be good Asian neighbours, in a way that you don't see among the countries of East Asia."

It was after concluding important new deals with Japan, but before China had said a word in response, that Australia's main political parties came to blows. 

Bizarrely, it was the moment of anticipation, not the reality of Chinese reaction that Liberal and Labor differed.

The visit by Shinzo Abe was warmly welcomed by both sides. The new deals struck between the Abe and Abbott governments – one on trade and one on defence – were embraced by both sides – even though the defence aspect is extraordinarily sensitive. 

It's a serious moment in Japan's history. Abe is in the process of changing the strategic character of one of the world's great powers.

For decades, it had been thought that only an amendment to Japan's postwar "peace constitution" could lift the ban on engaging in "collective self-defence". The ban meant Japan could not come to the aid of its allies in war.

But the week before arriving in Canberra, Abe ended the ban by a decision of his government. Knowing he could not win enough public support to change the constitution, he "reinterpreted" it instead.

Abe has decided to allow his country to go to war in the defence of its allies. The polite cover story is that Japan needs to be able to help the US in defending itself against the dangerous crazies of North Korea.

The reality is that Japan is bracing for the possibility of war with China. 

Beijing's state-owned media thundered against the Abe decision as a militarists' "coup" against the Japanese constitution and the act of a warmonger.

The change will affect Japan's relations with Australia in peacetime, as well as, potentially, in war: "The relationship between Japan and Australia will be different in many respects," an adviser to Abe, Tomohiko Taniguchi, says.

"Previously there was hesitation in the Japanese public and the government to use Japanese military assets, now the Self-Defence Forces [Japan's military] can get into frequent military exercises and joint operations with Australia," he told me.

"It's time for Japan to be confident about who it is – a mature democracy. The situation has become so dire to threaten Japan's national interests. Japan has decided to make sizeable steps forward from its cocoon where it didn't pay any attention to reality."

Australia's main political parties didn't fall out over this momentous decision. Nor did they demur when Abe stood before a joint meeting of the houses of Parliament in Canberra to draw Australia into the Japanese effort: "Japan and Australia have deepened our economic ties," Abe said. "We will now join up in a scrum, just like in rugby, to nurture a regional and world order and to safeguard peace."

He didn't specify who was in the opposing scrum. He didn't need to.

Labor applauded when Abe signed a defence cooperation agreement with the federal government. The deal would allow Australia and Japan to share technology and equipment, an intensification that will enable Australia to adopt Japan's advanced submarine know-how as it replaces its ageing Collins class fleet.

Some in Labor were jarred by a line in Tony Abbott's speech in reply to Abe, when he paid tribute to Japan's troops in World War II.

Abe had expressed sorrow and condolences over Australia's war dead and pledged to learn from history; in response Abbott said Japanese military personnel demonstrated "courage" and "patriotism of a very high order." 

Said Abbott: "We admired the skill and the sense of honour that they brought to their task, although we disagreed with what they did. Perhaps we grasped, even then, that with a change of heart the fiercest of opponents could be the best of friends."

Still, no one in Labor publicly criticised the government. Only when the Canberra visit was finished, only when the two prime ministers left for a tour of the Pilbara, did the parties fall out.

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop spoke in anticipation of the potential reaction from Beijing in an interview with Fairfax Media's John Garnaut.

The story in Thursday's paper began: "Australia will stand up to China to defend peace, liberal values and the rule of law, says Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

"In the Coalition government's clearest statement yet on how to handle China, Ms Bishop said it had been a mistake for previous governments to avoid speaking about China for fear of causing offence.

"China doesn't respect weakness," the article quoted Bishop as saying.

For Labor, this crossed the line.

Opposition spokeswoman for foreign affairs and Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek called a doorstop: "I was a bit dismayed this morning to wake up to a front-page newspaper story in the Sydney Morning Herald from the Foreign Minister suggesting that we needed to move away from one of our friends in the region to be closer to the other.

"This has been a continuing theme in the government's foreign policy recently – this zero-sum game approach to our friendships in the region. I think it's very important to understand that when talking about Australia's foreign policy interests, it's very clear that our best interests are served by having a close relationship with China and a close relationship with Japan."

A more junior Labor member, senator Sam Dastyari, told reporters: "There will certainly be economic and trade consequences if the government stays on this path of picking sides in ongoing disputes involving China and frankly it's not in our economic, it's not in our political, it's not in our security, it's not in our geographic interest to be getting involved in these things."

Dastyari, from Labor's Right faction, didn't coordinate his remarks with Plibersek, from the Left, but both agreed that the government was doing gratuitous harm to Australia's China interests.

In between Bishop speaking to Garnaut and the two Labor politicians' response, a Chinese reaction emerged. The only strident Chinese criticism came from the Canberra correspondent of the state-owned Xinhua new service, Xu Haijing, in an English-language comment posted on her blog.

She took aim at Abbott's praise for Japanese troops in World War II. The Australian leader's comments were appalling, she said: "He probably wasn't aware that the Japanese troops possessed other ‘skills', skills to loot, to rape, to torture and to kill."

She may well be right that Abbott had taken his paean to Japan's wartime troops to excess. China's government and people hold on to their wartime anger against Japan in a way that Australia has long ago discarded as counterproductive.

The Chinese Communist Party uses history selectively and strategically for political effect – it censors any reference to historical events in Tiananmen Square in 1989, for instance, yet is keen to nurse resentment against Japan over events half a century earlier.

The point is that Chinese criticism of Australia's dealings with Japan this week were from a minor source, on a subsidiary issue, chiefly about the past and not the present. But they got a major play in the Australian media, which was looking to China in keen anticipation of some disapproval.

The big developments – the intensification of Australia's defence and trade ties with Japan – were not criticised. China's foreign affairs ministry said only that "we hope that cooperation among relevant countries can contribute positively to regional peace and stability, instead of the opposite, let alone harming the third country."

Perfectly unexceptionable remarks, in other words.

Overall, says the director of the Australian Centre on China in the World at the ANU, Geremie Barme, "the Chinese official reaction was relatively mild, not as exaggerated as some people make out".

Indeed, China's president, Xi Jinping, met John Howard in Beijing on Wednesday. He asked for co-operation to continue. He asked that negotiations on the Australia-China free trade agreement be accelerated, according to a report on the Xinhua news service.

This is the opposite of an adverse reaction from China. From the quarter that matters most, the paramount leader, the message to Australia was a request to accelerate co-operation in trade.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor.

14 comments

  • "Said Abbott: "We admired the skill and the sense of honour that they brought to their task, although we disagreed with what they did."

    Yet another stupid, infamous quote of Abbott's to remember on election day. "We", Tony?

    Commenter
    Juan Term
    Date and time
    July 12, 2014, 6:53AM
    • I can't help but think that John Howard would never have said something so ill considered, unnecessary and insensitive.

      Commenter
      Hard line Centrist
      Date and time
      July 12, 2014, 7:26AM
    • It is a pity that so may commentators are verballing the PM. He never commentated on Japanese soldiers in general (the word was never mentioned) only the Japanese Submariners.

      It is a matter of historical fact. We as a nation honoured them such that we felt it necessary to return their bodies to Japan for full honours during war time.

      I do find it curious that Peter omits this fact from his piece.

      Commenter
      Michael
      Date and time
      July 12, 2014, 10:24AM
  • Abbott has ended this bi-partisanship. The concept of bi-partisanship is alien to him. His remarks about Japanese soldiers were far more offensive than you admit in this article.

    Commenter
    Michael
    Date and time
    July 12, 2014, 8:32AM
    • It seems obvious to me (but I solicit other reader's viewpoints) that we are on the road to WW3 - with said war likely being (China+North Korea) vs (USA+allied countries). The Chinese have (quite understandably) become sick of being mere factory workers and now China wants to extend its power. The Senkaku islands, and Chinese oil rigs near Vietnam are just two examples.

      The USA is attempting to contain China militarily - by ringing it with US bases. Most prominent is Guam (wall to wall nukes at Anderson AFB I'm guessing), but also Okinawa, and Australia (and with 'luck' Burma in the future). Australia is therefore a nuclear power by proxy with the US bases and facilities here. Hillary Clinton's recent admonishment to Australia (to tow the line) is telling. Australia is also therefore a nuclear target.

      I don't know when this sabre-rattling will come to a climax - possibly not for quite a while. But it is obvious the USA dominance of the world stage is on the decline, and China is flexing its muscles. Something will eventually give.

      The USA's recent military forays have all been disasters, but it can still out-nuke anyone else. We (Australia) are just one of the pawns in this game.

      What do other people think? Disagree, concur, or what?

      Bob.

      Commenter
      bob_666
      Location
      ex Sydney
      Date and time
      July 12, 2014, 8:49AM
      • Abbott said that "Japanese Military Personnel demonstrated courage and patriotism of a very high order " . They most certainly did .
        He also said "we admire their skill and sense of honour they bought to their task " All the old diggers I knew , including my Father admired their ability . It is the sense of honour bit that's hard to swallow .
        I am sure that he was speaking about their sense of honour to , the Emperor , Japan , their units , families and the Japanese warrior tradition . This made them such a formidable force .
        No one would claim that there was anything honourable about the way they used this against their enemies . Certainly not the Chinese or those who came under their rule anywhere . And certainly not the Americans and Australians who fought the campaigns in New Guinea , Guadalcanal and the various islands . The Japanese conduct reduced these battles to the lowest possible level , leading to retaliation by those who witnessed the beastiality . Dad at his last regretted , that he had not prevented his diggers doing so , it was a great burden for him . Only evident in his late 80 s , but probably always within him , but by then his hate had gone . Other veterans seem to have been able meet up with their former foes in their latter years. But this is hardly what Abbott could mentioned on this occasion .

        Commenter
        Mankad
        Location
        Up in Palmerland ?
        Date and time
        July 12, 2014, 8:55AM
        • This opinion piece is more a media critique, than a critique of the slightly opposing positions of Bishop and Plibersek. It is yet another example of the tension between Fairfax and News Ltd, although the usual direction of the carping has been reversed. Hartcher and Sheridan should get together over coffee.

          Commenter
          Julie
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          July 12, 2014, 9:15AM
          • Tony earns no one's respect because what he says makes no sense. He says the things he says because he thinks they fit the moment or they are what the listener wants to hear. He tells us not to stereotype him - it's meaningless because the silly chap doesn't realize that it is by his words and deeds that we "stereotype" him. Not only Australia knows him well but USA, China and Japan too...a waste of space.

            Commenter
            Bodhidharma
            Location
            Mascot
            Date and time
            July 12, 2014, 9:26AM
            • The obsequious nature of our crawling to the U.S, China and Japan is primarily underscored by the knowledge we cannot defend ourselves. Let us just go nuclear and be done with it. That, and only that,will rebalance the defense concept that a small to middling power must really know, that we are not economically poweful enough to withstand financial marauding by larger economies. A sharp and well honed defense posture lays down that ultimate notification to any power, that we are not to be trifled with.

              At the moment our main interest in the Military is about Gays in the Defense force and molestations on board ships and at Academys, when we should be completely forthright about our recent failed invasions which have ensured rapid evolution of our alleged enemies in their Bastions and Citadels, and certainy highlighted to those enemies that Australians are a contemporary threat and rich pickings wherever they travel.Fools and their succours know no boundaries.

              Commenter
              Chazza
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              July 12, 2014, 9:29AM
              • It is very apparent to me that China's reaction to Shinzo Abe's visit to Australia is very calm and rational.On the other hand, I failed to see any logic and wisdoms for us taking sides of the disputes between Japan and China. Anyone who have travelled to China recently can tell you that China has become a major industrial power in the world. If with a strong will they can easily produce same amount nuclear weapons as USA. Therefore a full scale war between China and USA is inconceivable. By choosing sides, the damage to our interests could be detrimental. I have grave concerns for the wisdoms of our government.

                Commenter
                Jim Z
                Location
                Elanora Heights
                Date and time
                July 12, 2014, 9:32AM

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