Amongst the calamity of President Obama’s foreign policy there are unexpected good news stories. The Kurds, for instance, have taken control of Kirkuk, population 400,000, claiming it as part of their nascent Kurdish state. Admittedly this has come at the price of the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group elsewhere in Iraq but in these dark days a victory is a victory. Meanwhile, the armed forces of Ukraine are experiencing a period of success in their war of national liberation against pro-Putin militias in eastern Ukraine. The combination of a revanchist megalomaniac in the Kremlin and a New Left ideologue in the Oval Office poses an existential threat to Ukrainians and so far they appear to be responding with admirable pluck and good judgement.
Japan, too, has felt the fallout of the not-so-golden age of Barack Obama. The Japanese are suffering from an aging population, a stagnant economy and an official defence stance hamstrung by the infamy of their role in the Second World War. How to counter a China that is everyday re-acquiring imperial sensibilities? Call in the US cavalry? The White House might be keen to “pivot” to Asia, but Japan – not to mention the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore et al – realise Team Obama has no form. Fresh from his Israel-Palestine, Muslim Brotherhood-General al-Sisi, Iraq-Islamic State group, Syrian Civil War, Russia-Ukraine and Iranian nuclear disarmament “triumphs”, US Secretary of State John Kerry is more troublemaker than peacemaker.
For the foreseeable future, at least, we are living in a do-it-yourself, post-American world, which is where Japan’s Prime Minister Abe comes into the picture. At exactly the same time the liberal-democratic nations of East Asia are looking for leadership Shinzo Abe begins re-configuring Japan’s role in the world. Some of this simply involves acknowledging what was previously an unspoken reality. For instance, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) were already more than a match for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and yet PM Abe’s “re-interpretation” of Japan’s post-war constitution sends a reassuring message to the other liberal democracies in the Asia-Pacific region that live with a fiery dragon breathing down their necks.
The same applies to Australian-Japanese relations. Because of our separate US security arrangements, Australia and Japan have long been – if only in a de facto sense – the closest of military and security partners. Australia’s intelligence operations in the South Pacific complement Japan’s corresponding activities in the North Pacific. To some extent, Tony Abbott’s earlier visit to Japan and now Shinzo Abe’s stellar performance in Australia only makes explicit what was already the case – Japan, to paraphrase a previous Abbot remark, is Australia’s most important ally in Asia.
For born-again Malcolm Fraser, of course, Australia and Japan brazenly speaking about their strategic interdependence undermines Australian security. His Dangerous Allies (2014) insists we would be better off without “great and powerful friends”, which is exactly what I argued in 1975 as an eighteen-year-old Marxist undergraduate sporting a “Shame, Fraser, Shame!” badge. When Tony Abbott described liberal-democratic Japan as an “exemplary international citizen”, Fraser furiously tweeted: “Whaling exemplary?” I am hoping that Fraser is about to tweet his intention – a la John Lennon and his MBE – to hand back the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, an honour personally bestowed upon Fraser by the Emperor of Japan in 2006. Our former PM’s gutsy action would serve as a protest against both the Japanese whaling industry and the voracious capitalists who stand to profit from the new Free Trade Agreement between Australia and Japan.
The greater tragedy of Malcolm Fraser is that his clueless take on latter-day geopolitics appears to be shared by the Fairfax-ABC media collective and vast swathes of academia. The Leftist intelligentsia has, for many years, counselled Canberra to go softly-softly with Beijing by adopting a more independent and less aligned foreign policy. Thus, the Mandarin-speaking Kevin07 was once upon a time hailed as the diplomat’s diplomat who would subtly reposition the Land of Oz as a friend of both the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Trouble was, Canberra’s rapport with Beijing did not flourish during the Rudd-Gillard era – but neither did political relations with Djakarta, Seoul, New Delhi, Tokyo et al.
The reality is that Beijing will not respect Canberra for discarding our “great and powerful friends” – quite the opposite, in fact. In hard geopolitical terms, Beijing takes us seriously as a power – if it takes us seriously at all – in the context of our intimate ties to Washington D.C. and, just as important in the Asia-Pacific framework, Tokyo. The People’s Republic of China purchases 30 per cent of Australia’s exports, and yet to shrink our association with liberal democracies such as the USA and Japan on the whim of the communist despots ruling China hardly meets the criteria of an “independent and less aligned” Australian foreign policy. The term appeasement might be closer to the truth.
There are many things about the Pacific War that must never be forgotten, but anyone who has experienced contemporary Japan knows that, as far as leaving behind its Emperor-worshipping fascist past and embracing liberal democracy, Japan is a “normal” country. Fraser’s jibe that modern-day Japan should not be rated as an “exemplary international citizen” on account of its history of whaling is exactly wrong. As Tony Abbott said about the March 2014 ICJ ruling: “It is greatly to Japan’s credit that it has respected the decision of the international tribunal even though the decision didn’t go the way Japan hoped.” A man such as Malcolm Fraser, growing down into a radicalised adolescent peevishness, cannot possibly grasp the wisdom of Tony Abbott’s words: “The friendship between Australia and Japan is far, far bigger than our disagreement on one particular subject.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while addressing the Australian parliament, offered his “sincere condolences” for the suffering endured by Australian soldiers on the Kokoda Track and the 2,345 prisoners of war who died at Sandakan during the Second World War. My father fought against the Japanese and my uncle was an inmate along with Weary Dunlop. Both men, were they still alive, would have acknowledged the maturity and appropriateness of Prime Minister Abbott recalling that the Japanese submariners who died attacking Sydney Harbour in 1942 were accorded a proper military funeral: “Perhaps we grasped, even then, that with a change of heart the fiercest of opponents could be the best of friends.”
Daryl McCann blogs at darylmccann.blogspot.com.au