Why Australia's relationship with Japan infuriates China

Beijing is demonising Japan for strategic reasons, but the Abbott government refuses to play ball.

The week began with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi firing an opening shot at the Abbott government by declaring that his country “may not be Australia’s closest friend at the moment” but argued that China “is surely Australia’s most sincere friend”. These comments are clearly a belated riposte to Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s declaration late last year that Japan was Australia’s “best friend” in Asia.

As Business Spectator readers will know, relations between China and Japan have deteriorated considerably over the past five years. In this context, Beijing will not have been pleased about Abbott’s comments officially ranking relations with Japan above that of every other country in the region, including China.

Even if many diplomats do not approve of their leaders ranking relations with one country over another, the reality is that most of the region would agree with Canberra’s decision to elevate the bilateral relationship with Japan amid deepening suspicions and wariness of China.

The first point to be made is that if China is seeking to improve relations with Australia, then taking a dig at a foreign government’s declaration during a time when one is a guest of that country is hardly a productive way to begin.

After all, has any other country in Asia taken a dig at Abbott? The fact is that Australia’s relationship with every other country (including Indonesia) is not worse off -- and in many cases is better off -- than it was prior to the Coalition winning the federal election in 2013.   

Secondly, looking at how the countries and governments relate to each other, Japan’s relationship with Australia is objectively superior to that of China’s in almost every conceivable way.

It is true that China is the largest buyer of Australian commodities, but that is not the essence of friendship and trust between countries. China is the largest trading partner of Japan, Vietnam and India, yet its relationship with these three countries has worsened considerably over the past several years.

Japan is far more important as an investor in Australia -- and Australia in Japan -- than China. Foreign direct investment matters because it is a long-term relationship between economic and commercial entities. Do you have more skin in the game when you frequent a restaurant, or when you actually invest in that restaurant?

One can take other measures of intimacy and friendship: consider the international priorities that reflect both national interests and values. There is barely any difference between the voting directions and positions taken by Australia and Japan at bodies such as the UN, East Asian Summit and other regional forums. The same applies when they endorse or condemn military action by other countries.

That can hardly be said about China and Australia. Japan and Australia see eye-to-eye on almost all human rights and human security issues. This is not surprising since both countries share very similar political systems and moral world views to each other, unlike China.

Australia and Japan also have the same security allies and partners and are close enough to increasingly share sensitive intelligence and military technologies.    

Even if one were to use Wang’s standard of the most “sincere friend”, Japanese government entities, unlike Chinese counterparts, do not hack into the networks of Australian governments, corporations and citizens.

Nor do sincere friends ask each other to ‘choose’ between our decades-old alliance with the US and a relatively new friendship with China, as senior Chinese government and military officials have done in the recent past.

Thirdly, and despite Wang wanting to make an issue out of it, Australia’s favourable view of Japan is replicated throughout the region. A July 2013 Pew Global survey revealed that 90 per cent of Chinese respondents (and 77 per cent of South Korean respondents) viewed Japan unfavourably. But this was against the grain in the region, with 80 per cent of Malaysians, 79 per cent of Indonesians and 78 per cent of Filipinos and Australians viewing Japan favourably.

The Pew survey is consistent with another one conducted by Ipsos Hong Kong (commissioned by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs but using methodology determined solely by Ipsos.) Of the 2,144 surveyed in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar, Japan was nominated as the ‘most reliable’ major country, beating 10 other countries including the US, China, India and several European countries.

Moreover, Wang’s "most sincere friend" claim would have little credibility in the region. In a July 2014 Pew Global survey, 83 per cent of South Korean respondents were ‘very concerned’ or ‘concerned’ that territorial and/or maritime disputes involving China could lead to military conflict. In Japan, the figure was 83 per cent, 93 per cent in the Philippines, 84 per cent in Vietnam, 72 per cent in India, 66 per cent in Malaysia, 55 per cent in Bangladesh, 52 per cent in Indonesia, and 50 per cent in Thailand.

Needless to say, views that China is a “sincere friend” are not widely held in the region. The point is that those criticising Australia for wanting closer relations with Japan rather than China should take a closer look at what is happening throughout the whole region. 

Finally, one should note that governments in China, and to a lesser extent South Korea, have tried hard to use wartime history in demonising modern-day Japan for domestic political purposes; and in China’s case, also for strategic advantage. Many of the countries surveyed in the aforementioned surveys suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese during World War II.

While governments in most countries have not allowed still-open sores from World War II to colour every interaction with Japan, governments in China and South Korea have done the opposite in recent times by insisting that interaction with Japan be viewed predominately through that wartime lens.

For Beijing and Seoul, this has been for domestic political advantage: taking the genuine war wounds and trauma that still exist in their societies and exploiting these to position themselves as defenders of national slights against a demon country in the neighbourhood.

Beijing has also demonised Japan for strategic reasons -- something the Abbott government is seemingly well aware of. Raising the pre-war spectre of a ‘remilitarised’ Japan is done to restrict regional support for contemporary Japan playing a larger strategic and political role in Asia.

This is to China’s advantage, since the US-Japan alliance is the key bilateral relationship in the US-led regional alliance system. As the most formidable stand-alone Asian power in that alliance system, Japan adds considerable weight to attempts at balancing Chinese power.

A permanently restrained Japan would make Chinese plans to weaken the alliance system and ease the US out of Asia as a strategic player that much easier. In contrast, a reinvigorated Japan, and the reinvigoration of Japanese relationships with the US and security partners such as Australia makes China’s task that much more difficult.

Incidentally, it is for this reason that Seoul allows Japanese wartime atrocities to cast a shadow over its interaction with Tokyo. This move is counterproductive to Seoul’s strategic aim of strengthening the US-led alliance system in the region, even if the South Korean government obtains short-term political pay-offs for doing so. 

In any event, this is the reason why Abbott’s labelling of Japan as Australia’s best friend, and making good a series of meaningful defence and intelligence agreements so annoys Beijing.

Other countries might not choose to rank relationships in the region, but they are almost all supportive and welcoming of not just a more confident and proactive Japan, but also the deepening Australia-Japan defence relationship. With respect to the latter, the US, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia are doing the same.

Australia needs a good relationship with China. But it should not, and need not, come at the expense of the relationship we want with Japan. 

Dr John Lee is an adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC, and a Director of the Kokoda Foundation defence and security think-tank in Canberra.