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Japan and Australia: Two Different Sides of the Same US Coin [ 2006.06.22 ]

As the Chinese proverb states, He who retaliates should first dig two graves. Perhaps in this post-September the Eleventh World of American foreign policy the proverb should ready “many graves”, since by association countries aligned under the banner of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ have found themselves increasingly in need of places to bury their dead. Spain and more recently the United Kingdom are sorry examples of how the fight against terrorism is seemingly endless. Ironically this troubled period in the World’s history has at least brought to bare some positives, if indeed one dares to make light of “The Age of Terror”.

Japan, once a blossoming Imperialist, now find’s itself in a similar position to a nation it once tried to conquer, Australia. To be sure, many years have passed since the Pacific Ocean echoed to the sound of gunfire from the turrets of Japanese and Australian naval vessels, but the two nations, whilst becoming amicable, have always remained somewhat indifferent towards each other. Whilst Japan’s financial boom of the 1980s may have been welcomed by Australia’s many tourist resorts and foreign currency exchange booths, there has often been little attention paid to the goings on in Japan by Australians, and one suspects the same can be said for the reverse. For despite nature documentaries highlighting the ‘cuteness’ of Australia’s wildlife to the Japanese TV viewer, the relaxed Australian way of life with its vast open spaces, sweeping plains, and carefree attitude sits at odds with the archetypal Japanese citizen. Forever working, commuting, and climbing stairs to their apartment, the average Japanese person would think about Australia no more than a baseball fan might think about tennis. They know it exists, and they don’t mind people who play it, but at the end of the day they don’t really care what happens to it, just as long as they can still watch baseball. So when do these two sports ever come together to be appreciated at the same time? If you said the Olympic games, guess again. The real answer is when the United States wants them to.

For too long now Japan has looked to America as a source of cultural input. As an Australian Citizen I can sadly say the same is true of that country, but of course what preceded such cultural assimilation was military assimilation. Australia, through perennial fear of being too weak to defend itself, and Japan by virtue of losing out in 1945, have both found themselves reliant on US military, and by association, foreign policy. If America says ‘jump’ then Japan finds itself saying ‘how high?’ and Australia ‘how many times?’. The invasion of Iraq, weakly linked to the global war on terror, is proof enough of such a relationship. Whilst it might be fair to say that the US deals with its ‘anti-terrorism partners’ bilaterally, the flow on effect is clearly a closer bond between the other nations that support the US position. There might not be a formalised union or forum between US allies that generates and maintains official policies and stances but there is certainly an ongoing series of meetings and discussions between allied nation states regarding the whole terror issue. In fact in April of this year Australian Prime Minister John Howard was in Tokyo visiting his Japanese counterpart in a media friendly showing of solidarity not only between the peoples of both countries, the importers and exporters, traders and bankers, but also in the policies between the two countries. Nothing could have been higher on the agenda than the involvement of Japanese peacekeeping forces and Australian troops in the Middle East. In an ironic twist of fate, where once Australians and Japanese soldiers stood on opposite sides of a fence training guns at each other, now one looks to protect the other as they both wish to participate in the Western or should that be the Highly Developed World’s agenda of anti-terrorism.

The question one has to ask is ‘Why should Japan wish to involve itself in a crisis that does not affect its own way of life?’. Japan is a monoculture. With apologies to the Ainu and the Okinawa Islanders, Japan has no ethnic minorities or religious divides that are common place in almost every other Pacific nation. Terrorists it would appear do not reside in that country and certainly there is no cause for social disturbance by anyone acting under their own faith, beliefs, or religion. What about Australia? Certainly it is much closer to the regions’ hotbed of terrorist activities that lie in and around South-east Asia, and its citizens are targets of terrorist attacks, as evident by the nightclub bombings in Bali, Indonesia. Does this mean it should send troops thousands of kilometres away to deal with circumstances that seemingly have no direct effect on the nations stability? Arguably not. In fact it appears that were it not for the United States and its status of sole world super-power, nations like Japan and even Australia would be less easy to convince in complying with US requests regarding military and civilian assistance towards its own foreign interests. In this sense I argue that the two nations can be thought of as different sides of the same American silver dollar.

It might not be a perfect triangle but it really does help to serve every party. Japan gets all the legitimate military muscle it can handle thanks to US interest in North Asian issues such as the Taiwan dispute and the North Korean stand-off. In fact Japan is protected and does not even have to fire one shot in anger, as the US well and truly serves to counterbalance the threat of mainland military power, but it is sad to even need to discuss such potential conflicts given the open wounds of last century’s battles. Simultaneously the United States keeps an active interest in events on the western side of the Pacific and has Japan and the Republic of Korea to thank for that. In the Southeast of the Asian continent the US focus shifts from asking Japan to be a neighbourhood watchdog towards asking Australia to keep a close eye on things. Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia are all nations that are keenly observed by the Australian government, and you can be sure that any goings on in these states is reported back to Washington. Historically when conflict has arisen involving the US Australia has never denied assistance, from the Korea War to Vietnam, the 1992 Gulf War to the Iraq of today. The reason being simply that should Australia find itself in immediate danger from other waring states, it would like to assume that the US Armed Forces would arrive all guns blazing to ward of the enemy.

And so both Japan and US and the US and Australia are paired up in deals of friendly diplomatic ties which at the end of the day lead Japan and Australia to be linked similarly. Of course there is nothing to suggest that without US influence Japan and Australia would not be so cordial towards each other over diplomatic issues such as the Iraq war and anti-terrorism efforts in general, but it certainly seems that the American government has inadvertently strengthened any such relationship. It would be unacceptably self-defeatist for an Australian or Japanese citizen to assume that the United States does not bare any affect on their own nations’ domestic policies pertaining to foreign ministerial issues. Not one single Japan Self-Defence Force troop would be deployed in Iraq presently were it not for the global machinations of the United States, and quite probably nor would there be an Australian presence. However both nations are there working side by side and because of this the governments of these two western pacific-rim neighbours have been brought much closer together. Where once Japan and Australia may have faced Asia-Pacific issues of peace and security independently now there is a much stronger bilateral platform from which greater solutions can be formulated. The two richest per capita and the two most developed nations in the Asian region can feel stronger knowing that each respects the other greatly and is willing to assist in all matters of stabilising the national tensions and societal needs of the other members of the Asia Pacific. At the end of the day history never repeats itself and the world we live in is the only one we’ve ever known. The United States of America is the only current super-power and Japan is the most successful Asian country and Australia, despite its meagre political size and little bearing on the world to date is never the less an ally and more importantly a friend of both. So the next time a leaping kangaroo brings a smile to a Japanese television audience or an Australian hotel manager waves goodbye to a busload of holidaying Japanese citizens they should toss that good ol’ silver dollar in the air and say ‘Thankyou America for bringing us closer together!’

Bernard Laidlaw


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