Earlier this week Hugh White wrote a column for the Fairfax papers about Shinzo Abe's visit to Australia, in which he argued that Prime Minister Abbott was embracing a closer relationship with Japan either without considering the larger strategic consequences or because he wanted to 'spur on' regional rivalries. Japan-China tensions are rising and the US and China are manoeuvring for regional supremacy, Hugh wrote, but:
There is no sign that Mr Abbott has considered any of these questions. One reason might be that he simply does not understand what’s happening in Asia today, and so he doesn’t really understand what Mr Abe is after. This might seem hard to believe, but Mr Abbott often speaks as if he simply does not accept that strategic tensions are growing. For example he told a Washington audience recently that America should not worry about China’s rise because it is not a strategic rival. I doubt Mr Abe would agree.
A second possibility is that Mr Abbott is just pretending not to understand. He does understand what is going on in Asia, and has decided that, as regional strategic rivalries escalate, Australia’s best move is to spur them on – not just by strengthening our alliance with America, but by becoming Japan’s ally against China.
Let's consider both these possibilities in turn.
The first is based on what strikes me as a misreading of Abbott's speech to the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington. Far from dismissing rivalry, Abbott acknowledges the possibility by saying 'it’s understandable that Americans should be wary of potential rivals.' To me, the tone of the speech is not one of denying or wishing away a rivalry, but of implicitly pleading with Washington and Beijing to please keep their rivalry in check, for the good of us all:
The relationship between America and China is worth all the effort that both countries are putting into it – because no relationship is more vital for the world’s future. I remain fundamentally optimistic because conflict is in no one’s best interest. We will all advance together or none of us will advance at all.
But as of this morning, we probably don't need to parse the PM's words to solve this mystery, because, in an interview with Fairfax, his foreign minister Julie Bishop has...
...made the clearest public statement yet of how the increasingly militarised disputes on China’s periphery were prompting Australia to deepen and broaden military ties with the United States and other nations, most notably Japan. Those trends have been on display this week with Prime Minister Tony Abbott agreeing to a “strategic” defence relationship and new military technology sharing agreements with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who leaves Australia on Wednesday.
“We know that the optimum is deeper engagement [with China],” said Ms Bishop. “But we’re also clear-eyed about what could go wrong. So you have to hope for the best but manage for the worst.”
Bishop also recently made some dark comparisons between Asia today pre-World War I Europe (compare this to her tone during the 2013 election campaign to get a sense of how dramatic this change is). Earlier this week I aired some reservations about the tightening of ties with Tokyo, yet Bishop's statements at least show that the Government is not in denial about the challenge China represents to the Asian strategic order.
So if the Government is not aligning blindly with Tokyo, then what of Hugh's second possibility? I'm thrown by Hugh's claim that Abbott may wish to 'spur on' the rivalry between Japan and China. What possible Australian interest could this serve? Surely the more straightforward interpretation is that the Abbott Government is practicing a form of offensive realism. It recognises the risk of conflict between Asia's great powers, and judges that the best way for Australia to help prevent or deter such a conflict is to signal that Japan is not alone. Hugh may think this will spur on a China-Japan rivalry, but the aim is surely to damp it down by showing resolve and thereby convincing China that it is losing.
Whether one agrees with that policy or not, at least it shows that the fog has lifted. Previously, open acknowledgement of the risks of China's rise was left to ex- political leaders such as Paul Keating, Bob Carr, and Malcolm Turnbull, while sitting governments preferred a more rose tinted view, captured in the Gillard Government's Asian Century White Paper and Bishop's early focus on economic diplomacy (as if Australia faced no greater problem than how much money it could make from the region).
The Abe visit and Bishop's interventions suggest things might be shifting inside Cabinet and that the Government feels the need to talk to Australians about it. And that means the question of how Australia should respond to China's rise can now move to centre-stage in the national debate about Australia's place in Asia.