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02.11.2022 Author: Vladimir Terehov

On the Japanese Prime Minister’s Trip to Australia

In his visit to Australia on October 21-23, Fumio Kishida, the Japanese prime minister, held talks with his counterpart Antony Albanese, as a result of which the two countries adopted an Australia-Japan Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. The signing of this document represents a significant development in the ongoing transformation of the geopolitical map in the Indo-Pacific region.

Especially in view of the fact that it forms part of a general and worrying trend for existing fault lines to grow deeper, a trend that may well spread throughout the region. That is despite the fact that the trend itself could be described as “manufactured”. That is, it is due to the circumstance that both signatories of the new document and also (in fact, and especially) their “big brother”, the USA see what is actually a neutral process, namely the transformation of China into the second largest world power, as a threat to their national interests.

That process, however, has, from its beginning been non-confrontational in nature, being aimed at building up a “coalition of states with a common destiny”. This positive vision of “Chinese expansion” into the international arena was the main fruit of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which finished a few days ago.

Here it is important to note that China’s current opponents do not entirely accept the above assessment, namely that China has become a major global power. The so-called Thucydides trap, examples of which can be found throughout history, is not a scientific law. As is true for all human activities, whether or not nations fall into this trap depends on their own free will. If the trap can be anticipated, then there is no reason to step in it. And even less reason to put one’s head in it.

Clearly in Washington, Tokyo and Canberra there are a range of different views on how to react to the continuing development of the (very real, as we have noted) process referred to above, namely the growth of China. In his recent comments on the Taiwan problem, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken hints that there is no reason for the US to see this growth as a threat to its own core interests, and this viewpoint was echoed by John Kirby, Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the White House, who, talking about the same issue, has emphasized that “there is no reason for this to erupt into conflict.”  Some commentators have suggested that John Kirby was speaking with reference to alarmist predictions from some within the US concerning the nature of China’s plans to annex Taiwan.

Certain figures in the Japanese political establishment, especially in opposition circles, tend to be quite positive in their attitude towards China. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is also made up of a number of groups which represent a wide spectrum of opinions in relation to key domestic and foreign policy issues.

As for Australia, previous to its victory in the general elections in May this year, the last time the Labor Party was in power was in 2008-13, when the left-centrist coalition government oversaw a rapid improvement in relations between China and Australia. Since then there have been many changes – and not for the better – in relations between the two countries. And it is not possible to put all the blame for the deterioration on the right-leaning coalition governments that were in power for most of the last ten years. Since the beginning of the 2010s there has been a steady increase in tensions in the international arena, primarily due to the contradictions between Australia’s main ally and the latter’s main rival, China. Naturally that increase in tensions has had an effect on relations between China and Australia.

Nevertheless, Antony Albanese’s new left-centrist government has promised to do what it can to improve them. Penny Wang, the Australian Foreign Minister has described her meeting with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, which took place on September 22 in New York, on the sidelines of the current UN General Assembly, as “constructive”.

But we repeat, the behavior of absolutely all members of the international community is controlled, to a significant extent, by the realities of the current state of play in the “Great Game” of international politics. It is these realities that create the winds blowing in the sails of the conservative foreign policy hawks – a faction that exists in the political establishments of all three countries.

In particular, they are serving as a catalyst for a comprehensive rapprochement between Australia and Japan, with a major focus on security issues. And, as the text of the Australia-Japan Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation makes clear, the parties are interpreting “security” in the widest possible terms. According to Point 3 of the Declaration, “Our significant trade, investment, defence and security ties, the deep affinity between our peoples and our shared values of democracy, human rights, free trade and a rules-based international order, make Japan and Australia natural partners.”

Significantly, nowhere in the document is China referred to by name. Although commentators are unanimous that it was in fact China that the two countries had in mind when they organized their recent Japan-Australia summit – the third in the last five months, each of which was held on an “appropriate occasion” – and it was China that dominated their discussions. Commentators also describe the current relationship between Japan and Australia as a “quasi-alliance”.

It should be noted that that close relationship took time to develop, and did not just come out of the blue. Its origin can be dated back to 2007, when the then Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and his Australian counterpart John Howard signed a similarly-named document. Another milestone on the way to the current Declaration came in January this year, when Fumio Kishida and Scott Morrisson, Australia’s prime minister at the time, signed the Reciprocal Access Agreement.

It should be noted that the appearance of an “updated version” of the Australia-Japan Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation is fully in line with the USA’s policy of creating a wide range of different anti-Chinese groupings. In Point 7 of the Declaration Japan’s and Australia’s bilateral alliances with the US are described as “critical pillars for our security, as well as for peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific.”

The significance of the reference to trade and investment ties in Point 3, referred to above, was demonstrated during Fujio Kishida’s recent visit to Australia. Equally significant was the place where the Japanese prime minister stayed during his trip to the vast country of Australia.

During his three-day trip, Fumio Kishida and his host Antony Albanese stayed in Perth, on Australia’s South-Western coast, looking out onto the Indian Ocean. Perth is the capital of Western Australia, a state that occupies a third of the country’s territory. Most of that territory is inhospitable and  90% of its population (some 2.2 million people) live in Perth.

There is obviously something special about Perthians, as while they make up less than 10% of Australia’s population, their city is one of the main motors driving Australia’s economy. They also have the raw materials they need to apply their skills – the state is Australia’s main source of mineral resources, which are essential for the development of any modern advanced economy, such as Japan.

But it is also vital to find someone able to organize and finance the whole spectrum of work – including the extraction and processing of the raw minerals and their delivery to the port for shipping to the foreign customers. And, inevitably, the investors have been found. They include the BHP Group, the world’s largest international mining corporation, which has a division, Nickel West, based in Perth. The nickel produced by the latter company is indispensable to many of the high technology industries that form the core of modern economies, including the automobile industry, in which the main focus is, increasingly, the manufacture of electric vehicles.

It is therefore no surprise that the group of Japanese business leaders who accompanied Fumio Kishida on his trip included representatives of two automotive manufacturers. In a meeting with businessmen from both countries, held in Perth, Fumio Kishida stressed his determination to promote the development of bilateral links in order to boost the “green economy”.

However, the decision to hold the latest meeting between the two prime ministers in Perth appears to fit in with the “military security” agenda, and this area, as already noted, was the main focus of the event. No observer with their eyes open could fail to notice the current tendency in Japan’s foreign policy, which is focused on developing its wide range of interests (including its military presence) in the Indian Ocean.

It is that last aspect of the Japanese prime minister’s most recent trip to Australia that makes the present author skeptical about Japan’s overall influence on the development of the situation in the Indo-Pacific region.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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