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

I have strenuously resisted the temptation to write again on Australia, the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD), and Japan-China relations. But my hand has been forced by Prime Minister Abe’s comment in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that ‘There are concerns that China is attempting to change the status quo by force, rather than by rule of law’.

Abe’s latest comments don’t leave us guessing about the recipient of his message, and his line certainly captured Beijing’s attention. But as a Japanese journalist reminded us this week, even the Japanese warnings which don't name Beijing are aimed in a clear direction. 'Use of force for changing the status quo', wrote Kiyoshi Takenaka, ‘is an expression often used by Japanese politicians and security experts to indirectly refer to what they see as China's aggressive maritime expansion in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.’

As I noted in my original post on this issue, this is just the sort of formulation Australia signed up to with its TSD partners earlier this month.

But my aim here is not to go back to my stalemated debate with Malcolm Cook in these pages. What has been bugging me is the idea that the TSD statement was simply a continuation of existing Australian policy. At a press conference in Tokyo on 16 October, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop provided just such an explanation. ‘I have also had meetings with Chinese officials’, she said:

...and explained that the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue is not aimed at any country, that it didn't represent a change in Australia's position at all. In fact our view on the East China Sea issue has been long-standing. That is, we don't take sides on territorial disputes, but we certainly don't support coercive or unilateral action in the resolution of such disputes. And that was what was expressed in the communique which is long-standing Australian policy.

Now, part of this is accurate. In July, for example, Bishop’s predecessor Bob Carr said in a speech in Hong Kong that ‘We don't take a position on competing maritime claims in the South or East China seas.’

But I can’t find a precedent for the TSD position to which Australia has now agreed. In the previous government’s 2013 Defence White Paper, for example, the East China Sea gets two mentions. But these are delightfully unspecific in the way they avoid turning the issue into a finger-pointing exercise, directly or anonymously.

The more substantial of these comments, on p.11, says that ‘the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea and the South China Sea’ are all ‘flashpoints’ which ‘have the potential to destabilise regional security owing to the risk of miscalculations or small incidents leading to escalation.’ The White Paper does not use the Japanese formulation about the status quo. It instead calls generally for ‘effective mechanisms to help manage these pressure points’ so as to encourage a ‘peaceful regional strategic order with deeper understanding, clearer communication, and more effective rules.’

That seems closer to what Ms Bishop was herself writing in December last year (while she was still shadow foreign minister). In an even-handed opinion piece, she observed that the East China Sea dispute was a ‘serious flashpoint’ where there was a ‘high risk of miscalculation’. The answer, she said, was for both China and Japan to compromise, although her comments indicate she realised just how unlikely that would be. In her travels in North Asia she had ‘been struck by the militant rhetoric of officials in both countries in our discussions about the islands.’

All the more reason, then, for not giving the impression that Australia would or should take sides on the issue. But that is what has happened at the TSD, and it is a change in Canberra’s position that needs to be recognised, not glossed over.

Photo by Flickr user CSIS.