Australia’s Delicate China-Japan Balancing Act
Image Credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Australia’s Delicate China-Japan Balancing Act


Australia’s new foreign minister referred to Japan as Canberra’s “best friend” in Asia and announced Australia’s support for Japan’s military modernization during her first trip to Tokyo in her current position.

According to Kyodo, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told a press conference in Tokyo on Tuesday that Australia and Japan “share values and strategic interests” and “having so much in common, it’s not surprising that we should describe Japan as our best friend in Asia — not only to say it, but mean it.”

Later during the visit, Bishop announced that Australia supports Shinzo Abe’s effort to adopt a normal defense posture.

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“The Australian government welcomes the direction that the Abe government has taken in terms of having a more normal defense posture and being able to take a constructive role in regional and global security.”

She continued on this theme in a speech at the Japan National Press Club.

“We look forward to Japan making a greater contribution to security in our region and beyond – including through our alliances with the United States," Bishop said The Australian reported.

In an interview with The Australian following the speech, Bishop brought up the example of Afghanistan to justify her government’s policy on Japan’s military.

“Japan and Australia were working side by side in Afghanistan. If Australians were attacked, Japan would not have been able to support us, so that's not normal,” Bishop was quoted as saying. “It seems sensible to allow Japan to respond more appropriately and in a more normal way to collective defense measures.”

The move is almost certain to win the ire of China, which resolutely opposes Prime Minister Abe’s effort to enable Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to operate under a doctrine of “collective self-defense,” which would allow Tokyo to respond to attacks against allies or close partners. Among the potential cases where Japan could intervene under the banner of collective self-defense is if the U.S. and China went to war over Taiwan.

Even before Bishop’s announcements in Tokyo, China had been uneasy about the level of cooperation between Japan and Australia recently. As reported last week, following the release of the Australia-U.S.-Japanese joint statement, Beijing rebuked the parties by stating, “The United States, Japan and Australia are allies but this should not become an excuse to interfere in territorial disputes, otherwise it will only make the problems more complicated and harm the interests of all parties.”

Bishop was clearly hoping to minimize the amount of damage Australia’s embrace of Japan would have for Canberra’s bilateral relations with China. After stating that Japan was Australia’s best friend on Tuesday, for example, Bishop quickly added: “But that’s not to deny that we will continue to work on our relationship with China.”

In her interview with The Australian, Bishop similarly took issue with the argument made by Huge White, a leading Australian strategic analyst, that China might withdraw from free trade agreement talks with Australia if Canberra lent its support to Abe’s desire to change Japan’s defense posture.

“We value our relationship with China,” Bishop said in response. “We want to more broadly and deeply engage with China so it is not just seen through the prism of a resources and trading relationship, and that message is warmly received in Beijing.”

The past few weeks has thus highlighted the delicate balancing act the Australian government under new Prime Minister Tony Abbott will have to walk in its regional diplomacy.

Last week, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Abbott and Chinese President Xi Jinping sought to reinvigorate bilateral free trade agreement talks by announcing a one-year deadline on their competition. Abbott’s government, however, has pledged to conclude FTA agreements with Japan and South Korea during a 12-month timetable as well (Australia is also a party to the Trans-Pacific Partnership).

Putting aside the various economic issues involved, with Tokyo at odds with both of its neighbors these goals are ambitious to say the least. Besides dealing with the three Northeast Asian powers directly involved, Australia also has to factor in the position of the U.S. on all these issues.

That said, Australia can take comfort in knowing that it is not alone in trying to grapple with such delicate issues. This is the reality all parties face in an increasingly polarized region.

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