Comments like that, Hawke claimed, revealed Abbott’s “lack of depth in understanding of foreign policy issues”.
Hawke, a long-time Sinophile, can be excused for what he saw as a slight to China, which has long since overtaken Japan as Australia’s major trading partner, but when respected academic Hugh White says the Government should “push the pause button” on an alliance with Tokyo it is time to start taking the matter more seriously.
White, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, believes that Canberra’s strategic interests are quite different from Japan’s and that an alliance could see Australia drawn into the confrontation between Tokyo and Beijing over the Senkaku Islands “which carries a modest but very real risk of an armed clash which could quickly escalate into war”.
“So the question for us is, if we were Japan’s ally, would we go to war with China to support them over the Senkakus?” White asks.
Quite clearly there would be no stomach for such a conflict among Australians, but it might well be that by tying itself closer to Japan and taking a firmer stand on similar disputes in the South China Sea, Australia will be playing its part in ensuring that such situation does not arise.
Hawke was right when he said during the book launch that China wants a peaceful and stable region in which to pursue its economic interests. However there is a strengthening nationalistic streak in Beijing’s politics that seeks to impose its will on its near neighbours in any way short of all-out warfare.
If they can achieve their current objectives in this way, the nationalists in Beijing may be tempted to push the envelope further, making life very uncomfortable in the region, raising tensions and increasing the risk of an accidental plunge into all-out conflict.
New Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi see nothing wrong with a closer strategic partnership with Japan, calling it “a high priority” for his country which he hopes to seal in a visit there later this year.
Speaking to a visiting Japanese Parliamentary delegation, Modi said India and Japan shared a “fundamental identity of values, interests and policies”. The row over whaling aside, the same could be said for Australia and Japan.
China’s President, Xi Jinping, is on record as saying his country would never impose its will on other nations, no matter how powerful it becomes.
Maybe, but putting subtle and consistent pressure on smaller nations until they voluntarily bend to its will is another matter. What is needed now is a firm and united response to those pressures.
There is nothing wrong in waving the flag for democracy, freedom of speech and support for human rights in the Asian region – even if it is in the face of the authoritarian leadership in Beijing.