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Mentioning the war doesn't discredit government's deft diplomacy

Benjamin Herscovitch | 18 July 2014

benjamin-herscovitch For the last two weeks, Canberra has been buffeted by Asia's great power politics.

During Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to Australia last week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott stumbled into North Asia's heated history wars.

Reflecting on Australia's evolving perceptions of Japan, Abbott said that Australians 'admired the skill and the sense of honour' that the Japanese submariners killed in the attack on Sydney in 1942 'brought to their task although we disagreed with what they did.'

Owning to acute Chinese sensitivity to anything resembling amnesia about the horrors of Japan's wartime history, Abbott's comments prompted a biting backlash. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson even suggested that 'no one, as long as he or she is of conscience, would agree with what the Australian leader has said.'

Meanwhile, in response to a Fairfax report last week which seemed to imply that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had said that 'Australia will stand up to China,' an editorial in China's nationalistic Global Times labelled Bishop a 'complete fool.'

Notwithstanding the appearance of a succession of diplomatic debacles, Australia's regional relations are still in excellent health.

China might have been outraged by Abbott's praise for Japanese World War II soldiers, but the substance of Abe's visit prompted a relatively muted reaction from Beijing.

In response to news of Australia's deepening defence ties with Japan, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson noted: 'We hope that cooperation among relevant countries can contribute positively to regional peace and stability, instead of the opposite.'

Canberra's expanding military relationship with Tokyo neither surprises nor disappoints China: It is precisely what Beijing expects given that Japan and Australia are both liberal democratic allies of the United States with a warm and mutually beneficial partnership that spans more than six decades.

Moreover, Australia's embrace of Japan is in step with the region-wide response to Asia's changing balance of power.

China's economic resurgence, rapidly rising defence budget, and aggressive assertions of sovereignty over disputed territory have prompted India, Vietnam, the Philippines and many of Australia's other friends and partners in Asia to develop tighter ties with Japan as a means of hedging against Chinese power.

Of course, Canberra's affection for Tokyo is at odds with feelings in Beijing, where officials warn against the risk posed by Japan's supposed remilitarisation.

However, given that Australia's interests in Asia cannot be reduced to its interests in China, divergence between Beijing and Canberra is to be expected sometimes.

Indeed, with Beijing regularly rankling and intimidating its Asian neighbours, the only way for Australia to support its friends and partners in the region will be to periodically disappoint China.

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.