Robert Ayson is a Visiting Fellow with the ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, on research leave from the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

Malcolm Cook has offered thoughtful criticism of my argument that the Abbott Government went too far in a statement with Japan and the US opposing unilateral action in the East China Sea. And I have to say I agree with his initial observation that Japan is definitely alarmed about China. 

But this point of agreement reinforces my earlier analysis. Particularly when almost all of Japan’s foreign policy is directed through the prism of its concerns about China, Australia has to be especially careful not to get itself caught in a tussle between these two important partners. We simply cannot know whether it will make sense during a series of apparently small disputes, or a major Sino-Japanese crisis, for Australia to offer, let alone guarantee, support to anyone.

Think of that moment when the tensions between Tokyo, Beijing and perhaps Washington are escalating into something more violent. This may be precisely the point at which it is bad news for Canberra if any of these major powers believes Australia has an unconditional alignment with Japan.

Cultivating such a belief ahead of time is not good for Canberra. On Japan-China relations in particular, Australia should be relishing ambiguity, not reducing it. Yet Australia’s breathing room to make these important judgements is being progressively reduced.

Does this mean Australia should do whatever it can to avoid annoying China? As I say in a piece published in New Zealand this week, this should not be the starting point for Canberra’s policy. There will be times when it is essential for Australia to push back on what Beijing is doing or saying. But it should be about the things that clearly affect Australia’s core interests. I am not convinced Australia needs to go out of its way to show that it is an all-weather 'best friend' of Japan. That’s the sort of annoyance of China that is unnecessary and provocative.

We have every reason to think that Japan believes the status quo on the East China Sea is one where it retains administrative control over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. As the Abe Government continues to hold to the incredible and absurd line that there is no such dispute, it is all too clear that, in Tokyo’s eyes, China is the only challenger to the status quo. So there is something deeply significant about a situation where the Australian Foreign Minister and American Secretary of State join Japan in 'opposing coercive or unilateral actions that could change the status quo in the East China Sea.' (Foreign Minister Bishop defended this language in comments to the media in Tokyo yesterday.)

If Australia really has to send this message to Beijing, it should not be doing it while standing next to the two members of the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty. If it was me, I’d be talking much more generally about the need for restraint in territorial and maritime disputes across the region, and I’d be doing this unilaterally or under the cover of a wider multilateral grouping in Asia.

And if I was running things in Canberra, I’d be much less worried about being criticised for not standing up on this issue than being panned for having too much courage. As Hugh White has pointed out, Mr Abbott seems keen on making unconditional statements of support for selected partners in Asia, something which could easily get Australia into trouble.

Photo courtesy of the Foreign Minister.