Saturday 28 Mar 2020 | 21:06 | SYDNEY
Saturday 28 Mar 2020 | 21:06 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: The Japan phone call that never came


Sam Roggeveen


12 June 2008 15:30

Peter Alford, Tokyo correspondent for The Australian, argues (in response to this) that there are several reasons why Prime Minister Rudd should have been first to pick up the phone to his Japanese counterpart Yasuo Fukuda. My response follows:

Japan is still Australia’s principal trading partner, and the most reliable; Japan is the country that has worked hard quite recently (in part, admittedly, on the principle of ‘all of us outsiders are in this together’) to get Australia into Asian forums; politically, Japan is undergoing something that looks like an existential crisis and is thus even more inwardly preoccupied than usual, and that should be factored into its friends’ considerations; Australia is the country that late last year changed its government after more than a decade and the ALP is a party that in modern times has appeared less sympathetic (or, if you will, less obliging) towards official Japan than the conservatives; Mr Fukuda, when he became PM, made an explicitly expansive gesture towards Australia, which may also be his only public endorsement of Mr Abe’s foreign policy, and which, by the way, has been acknowledged by Mr Rudd this week; he also, as I understand it, restated to the new PM his invitation for Australia to be an ‘outreach’ partner at the G8 summit.

And Mr Fukuda has been, as Malcolm sensibly pointed out, very busy and very politically distracted at home from the very moment he took over the position.

So I don’t think there’s any question about who should have phoned whom first. And it might have saved Mr Rudd three or four days out of his obviously busy schedule.

There are two further points about this latest Japan-passing debate: (1) it started, and has been almost entirely conducted, in Australia, not Japan; and (2) the question of whether Mr Rudd would bypass Tokyo on his way to Beijing was about in informed circles even before the election. The educated guess then was that he wouldn’t be so tin-eared as to do it. I think, in the circumstances, the Japanese were quite restrained.

That's a strong list, Peter, though as I pointed out in March, Rudd came to office after Fukuda, so wouldn't a congratulatory phone call to Rudd have been in order then? Short of Japan being at war, I don't think 'too busy' is a good reason for failing to do that. As I said to Malcolm, your mum would never accept such an excuse, so I don't see why the Australian Government should.

But really, the argument about who should have called whom first is itself rather debasing, is it not? I mean, we're not talking about a couple of teenaged girls quibbling over a party invitation. And that's just the point I was trying to make when this whole controversy over Rudd's alleged slight to Japan erupted. This is a deep and mature relationship, and both sides have earned the right to feel secure in each other's estimations. Which isn't to say the relationship requires no management, but as Rudd himself said yesterday, that's a two-way street (h/t Blogocracy):

The Prime Minister told the Japan National Press Club yesterday that “six or seven” of his most senior ministers have visited Japan since Labor won the election in November. “How many Japanese Government ministers have been able to visit Australia in the same time? I don’t think there are any,” he said. “We need to put this in a bit of context.”

Peter's point that this debate has taken place almost entirely in Australia rather strengthens my argument that we are getting excited over very little. It perhaps also explains Peter's last observation, which is that the Japanese were quite restrained in their response. Maybe that's because there was never that much to get upset about in the first place.