WITH the world producing more history than most of us can consume right now, it is easy to lose sight of recent developments that could have even greater consequences for long-term peace and stability than events in Ukraine, Gaza, and Syria-Iraq.
The outcome of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, the changes of leadership in India and Indonesia and the re-energising of the Brics group of major non-Western states (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) may all be game-changers.
But Japan’s international muscle-flexing under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be even more significant. Unless it is very carefully managed by all concerned, including the US and Japan’s other closest Asia-Pacific allies, Abe’s makeover of Japanese foreign policy could undermine the fragile power balances that have so far kept the Sino-American rivalry in check.
Japan is right to be concerned about China’s new regional assertiveness, and Abe’s recent diplomatic push to strengthen Japan’s relations in south-east Asia, and with Australia and India, is understandable in that context.
Nor is it inherently unreasonable – despite opposition at home and abroad – for his government to seek to reinterpret Article 9 of Japan’s “peace constitution” to permit wider engagement in collective self-defence operations and military co-operation with allies and partners.
But the risks must be openly acknowledged. Opposition to any perceived revival of Japanese militarism is hard-wired in north-east Asia. Abe is an intensely conservative nationalist, still deeply reluctant to accept the extent of Japan’s World War II guilt (even when acknowledging, as he did in Australia recently, “the horrors of the past century’s history”).
His refusal to rule out future visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, with its war-glorifying Yushukan Museum, fuels hardline scepticism in China. It also makes common cause with South Korea much more difficult, and heightens the risk of explosive maritime territorial disputes.
Less noticed, but possibly more important in the long term, have been Japan’s efforts to reshape regional security arrangements, which have had three key elements.
First, there have been the hub-and-spoke alliances of the US with Japan, South Korea and Australia (and more loosely with Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines). These are accepted and well understood, if not loved, by China.
Second, there are national defence efforts, encouraged by the US, increasingly aimed at greater self-reliance if China’s rise becomes a military threat. These, too, have been accepted reasonably calmly by China, and have not undermined bilateral economic relationships with China.
Finally, there have been multilateral security dialogues designed to be vehicles for confidence-building, and conflict prevention and management. These have so far promised more than they have delivered, though not for want of continuing efforts.
For all of the hype that has accompanied the US “pivot” to Asia, the delicate balances involved in this basic architecture have changed little for decades.
But now Japan, with overt support from Australia in particular, seems determined to change the balance by establishing, as a counterweight to China, a denser alliance-type relationship with selected partners.
We have not yet seen any renewed attempt to re-establish the so-called quadrilateral security dialogue between Japan, Australia, the US, and India, which conducted military exercises in 2007 and was seen by China as a hostile containment enterprise. But it is not hard to imagine that this is still very much on Abe’s wish list.
With strategic competition between the US and China as delicately poised as it is, and with the economic interests of Australia, Japan, and many others in the region bound up just as intensely with China as their security interests are with the US, rocking the boat carries serious risks.
Countries like Australia should take a stand when China overreaches externally or violates human rights at home.
But we should be cautious about moving beyond taking stands to taking sides.
With a significant internal contest taking place between hard- and softer-liners in China, it is smart policy to speak and act in a way that helps the doves and gives no encouragement to the hawks.
Gareth Evans was Australia’s foreign minister from 1988 to 1996, and president of the International Crisis Group from 2000 to 2009.