My thanks Rob Ayson for responding promptly to my post on Japan and Japan-China relations. Rob says my post reaffirmed his worries about Australia’s management of the relationships with Japan and China. But in turn, Rob’s piece reaffirmed the worries I expressed about his original post.

I have called these concerns the 'Three Overshoots':

1. The concern about 'annoying China' and the consequent judgments about necessary (not one example mentioned) versus unnecessary (Rob's focus) annoyances would help China set the terms for Australian foreign policy. It would provide China much greater influence than other powers whom Rob Ayson does not worry about annoying.

This point is particularly important because it is well known that Chinese diplomats and public figures frequently express public annoyance on issues other states would choose to ignore, from the content of film festivals and book fairs to private think tank reports and the local management of torch relays. If it becomes clear that avoiding China's annoyance has become a central consideration in Australia's foreign policy, one would imagine that such extraordinary diplomatic behaviour may become even more marked.

2. As I noted in my original post, the two cases of unnecessary annoyance Rob Ayson counsels against do not seem to be issues of Australia standing up to or pushing back against China.

Prime Minister Abbott’s reference to Japan as Australia’s best friend in Asia is both true and very much in line with standard, decades-old Australian diplomatic language about Japan. The fact that Abbott reiterated this language in reference to Japan-Australia relations and an invitation for the Japanese prime minister to visit Australia bilaterally (something that has not happened since Prime Minister Koizumi) should not be noteworthy or annoying.

As for the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue’s opposition to 'coercive or unilateral actions that could change the status quo' in the East China Sea, it is China itself that has fulminated most about recent Japanese unilateral actions. This TSD declaration could be as much use to China as it is to Japan, or perhaps even more, given that China is not a TSD member. Rob's suggestion that Australia should seek to express such normal diplomatic language only in larger regional forums that include China would prove difficult, as China routinely quashes any such discussions in forums it is a member of, or in those over which it has leverage. Just ask ASEAN.

3. Rob Ayson (and Hugh White in the opinion piece Rob cites) over-interprets the Australian language on Japan and the scope and purpose of the Japan-Australia security partnership. Australia has never stated that it is an 'all-weather best friend of Japan'. Rather, Australia has emphasised that Japan is Australia’s best friend in Asia. I do not see how this is anywhere close to an unconditional alignment with Japan.

This tendency for overemphasis echoes earlier cautions from Hugh White that Australia should 'press the pause button' on its alliance with Japan, an alliance that neither Tokyo nor Canberra is aware of or working towards.

Looking at these three overshoots together, I fear that Rob Ayson has set the bar on what he deems 'unnecessary annoyance' of China so low that, in reality, he is counseling for what he says he opposes: making the avoidance of annoying China the starting point of Australian foreign policy.

Photo by Flickr user maxful.