Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 18:05 | SYDNEY
Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 18:05 | SYDNEY

AP community: Japan and Australia


Graeme Dobell

4 November 2009 07:34

At the East Asia Summit, Japan's leader expressed support for Australia's Asia Pacific community approach — then hit it with a substantial backhander.

Yukio Hatoyama said the broad principles of the Rudd community could be supported. Then he immediately kicked away one of the central Rudd principles by saying that Asia did not have to make an immediate decision about letting in the US. In the corridor afterwards, Rudd had a brief conversation with the Japanese Prime Minister, who said they were in agreement on the 'need for change'.

Hatoyama's position seems to be that the US should probably/perhaps be a member of the Community he is talking about, but it does not have to be in at the start. Mind you, pinning down the new Japanese Prime Minister's position is a little difficult because he is taking such pleasure in tormenting Japan's Foreign Ministry, as part of his general war on Tokyo's entrenched bureaucracy.

In discussing the gentle push and shove between Tokyo and Canberra, it is useful to compare the current manoeuvring with the establishment of APEC in Canberra exactly 20 years ago this week (it was Melbourne Cup week and Malaysia's Foreign Minister won the sweep on the race while Gareth Evans lost with the horse Pacific Mirage).

APEC was a joint creation of Australia and Japan, just as the two brought about the birth in Canberra in 1980 of its second track predecessor, PECC, the Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference. The 1980s now looks like Japan's golden age, and certainly the high point of the regional tag team act by Tokyo and Canberra. 

The then-and-now similarities and differences are useful. Richard Woolcott was Australia's APEC envoy in '89 and he has played the same role for Rudd's community. The 'C' word is just as difficult. Back then, the C in APEC was supposed to be Community, but had to settle for Cooperation. This time we are having the community versus Community conversation. And membership is always fraught.

Japanese bureaucratic warfare is just as intense as it was two decades ago. Bob Hawke launched the APEC concept in Seoul (following a visit to Tokyo). Even before Hawke went public, Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) had an envoy traveling around Asia talking about the Ministry's vision of what an APEC-type body would look like. When the MITI envoy visited ASEAN, Japan's Foreign Ministry (Gaimusho) instructed its diplomats in the region to lobby against the concept, fearing it would strengthen MITI's power in Tokyo.

One of Woolcott's important negotiating/mediation roles two decades ago was to help get some communication between MITI and Gaimusho. This time, the mediation effort needs to be between Hatoyama and his bureaucrats.

The biggest then-and-now change is that in 1989 Japan was clearly Asia's top power. Creating APEC was vital for Japan's relationship with the US, perhaps even more so than with the rest of Asia. In launching his proposal, Hawke could leave open the issue of US membership. Tokyo could allow Australia to play that initial gambit while Tokyo stressed that the US had to be present at the creation. 

In the year of the Tiananmen massacre, it was possible to create APEC without China as a member. Two decades later, China bestrides the scene. Hatoyama's key target is China and seemingly the US can be put to one side as a power that can be thought about later. The vital role the US plays in the region means this is a strange, even bizarre bit of policy — clear proof, if any were needed, of how many holes there are in the Asia Pacific security roof. 

As Amitav Acharya observes in writing about the community competition between Japan and Australia:

It is not impossible to imagine an East Asian Community without US participation, but failure to take advantage of the current positive US attitude towards Asian multilateral institutions by denying it membership may amount to a historic blunder on the part of Japan and other proponents.

The long history of policy consonance between Tokyo and Canberra makes the Community/community dissonance even more striking. The history of harmony suggests the current difference is one of emphasis or tactics rather than a fundamental divergence. Mark it down as another example of how China is disrupting the settings of the magnetic polarities that pulse through Asia's polity.

Certainly, Japan seems to be trying to reset its compass, lending some support to the argument by Tobias Harris that Tokyo is starting to think like a middle power. The Harris argument is that Japan will give greater emphasis to issues of leadership in Asia, which the US should not mistake as Tokyo's decision to choose Beijing over Washington. Rather, he says, Japan will follow the lead of its new middle power peers in the region:

Like other countries in Asia, including Australia, South Korea, and the ASEAN member nations, Japan will strive to maximize its freedom of action in a region dominated by the US and China.

Japan joining Australia as a middle power! Now there's thought to jostle with in the search for community.

Photo by Flickr user CanadaGood, used under a Creative Commons license.