Commentary | 06 November 2018

Tokyo is Canberra's path to Beijing

Originally published in Australian Financial Review

Originally published in Australian Financial Review

If Canberra is looking for a role model to revive relations with Beijing ahead of Marise Payne's trip to the Chinese capital this week, the first by an Australian Foreign Minister in more than two years, a good place to start might be in Tokyo.

At first blush, Japan looks like an unlikely source of diplomatic inspiration. After all, Sino-Japanese relations have always been conducted in the dark shadows of their wartime history, a legacy that Australia does not carry.

Nor does Australia have a territorial conflict with Beijing as Tokyo does, an issue that cratered bilateral ties in 2012 when the two countries last faced off over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

But the problems that Australia and Japan share in Asia are far more striking.

Like Australia, Japan is a rusted-on US security ally with an economy deeply enmeshed with China, and has been desperately manoeuvring to make sure it doesn't have to choose between one and the other.

Similarly, the politics of China inside Japan were long played out at undiplomatic decibel levels, as many problems are in democracies, with the same splits between security agencies and business as in Australia.

What lessons, then, do Tokyo's lengthy travails with Beijing have for Canberra?

Asserting its presence

The first is to stick to your guns. Faced with isolation by Beijing, Shinzo Abe focused on India and south-east Asia, setting a diplomatic pace with visits, investment and aid that has outstripped any other post-war Japanese leader. In the process, Abe has built up enormous capital for Japan in the region.

At the same time, Tokyo has stepped up its engagement in the South China Sea, something that Beijing repeatedly warned it against doing. Again, Japan stood firm on asserting its presence in waterways it regards as vital to its national interest.

In September, Japan's navy conducted exercises in the South China Sea. In October, Abe travelled to Beijing at the invitation of Xi Jinping for the first formal bilateral visit in seven years, an illustration, if any were needed, that Beijing's bark is often worse than its bite.

Tokyo has also deftly handled the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing's grandiose effort to place itself as the heart of Asia's political economy.

Tokyo has refused to sign onto the BRI project in name, instead, inking a bilateral agreement to participate in projects with China in third countries. In other words, Tokyo gains the benefits of the project without becoming a cheerleader for it.

There are two other issues that both countries face in handling the China challenge.

The first, naturally, is Donald Trump.

Japan and Australia see benefits in Trump's muscling up against Beijing, most notably in a forceful re-engagement in regional security, and pushing back against the theft and enforced transfer of technology.

But on trade, both countries are moving from a position of forbearance with Trump to resistance, something which, if the US President gets wind of it, could make relations with Washington more fraught.

Stable political leadership

Beijing understands its strong suit in Asia is its economic clout, which largely explains why China has been so eager to warm ties with Japan, and is now willing to sit down again with Australia.

Beijing knows a trade war with China is a trade war with Asia, and regional countries all have an interest in limiting the fallout from Trump's bovver boy tactics.

There is one final ingredient to Japanese policy that Australia has not been able to replicate, and that is stable, consistent political leadership.

Beijing has never liked Abe, not least because of their deep disdain for his revisionist views on wartime history. But his stiff-backed pursuit of Japan's interests has earned him the respect of Chinese and regional leaders.

At home, Abe has brutally bent the Japanese bureaucracy to his will. Anyone perceived as a panda-hugger in the Foreign Ministry has been shunted aside. The process has been ugly but it has ensured that Tokyo speaks with one voice on China.

The round robin of prime ministers in Canberra, by contrast, has killed Australia's ability to sustain top-level political relationships in the region.

Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison's falling out over Indonesia's reaction to the mooted move of Australia's embassy in Israel is a case in point. Weak governments will throw anything onto the bonfire if it lights up the sky even briefly, and damn the consequences.

By late last year, before Turnbull regained control of the debate, multiple Coalition politicians, parts of the bureaucracy and business were all freelancing on China, leaving a mess in their wake.

Australia needs a combination of strength, sophistication and a touch of slyness in dealing with Beijing. So far, Tokyo has displayed all three, to its great benefit.