Reluctant Realists

By Malcolm Cook and Andrew Shearer

Hillary Clinton hosts the Australian and Japanese foreign ministers at the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue in 2009. Cook and Shearer argue that the Gillard, Obama, and DPJ governments have each responded to China's rise with realism. Source: U.S. Department of State's flickr photostream, under a creative commons license.

Ideological supporters of Julia Gillard, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party of Japan must be ruing what has happened to their supposedly progressive leaders. Supporters of John Howard, George W. Bush and Junichiro Koizumi are smiling quietly.

Prime Minister Gillard of the Labor Left has belatedly embraced Howard’s 2007 reversal of the ban on uranium sales to India. Gillard and Obama oversaw a significant upgrading of the American alliance during a very martial presidential visit. Washington and Tokyo guided the East Asia Summit to focus on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Earlier, Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, stated that China’s military modernization was a national security challenge while Japanese Self Defence Forces conducted exercises against a would-be Chinese maritime invasion.

Three common threads tie these actions together. Each one irritates China, contradicts expectations when Gillard, Obama and the DPJ came to power, and suggests that all three leaders are coming to a shared view of Asia-Pacific security similar to that of Howard, Bush and Koizumi and given institutional form in the Australia-Japan-US Trilateral Strategic Dialogue.

When Gillard came unexpectedly to power, she declared that she knew little about foreign policy and preferred to read to children. Her first foreign policy speech as leader affirmed this self-assessment – it launched the short-lived East Timor “solution.”

When Obama came into office he sought to assuage and engage China through a doctrine Democrat foreign policy advisers labeled “strategic reassurance” and sought Beijing’s cooperation on Iran and North Korea. This approach included dodging the Dalai Lama and being less supportive of arms sales to Taiwan. The aim was to encourage Beijing to cooperate on global issues such as climate change. This new, softer approach may have reassured China. But it achieved precisely the opposite effect with America’s security allies and partners in Asia.

When the Democratic Party of Japan ended the half-century electoral dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party, it moved quickly to differentiate itself. Flushed with his historic victory, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announced a new foreign and security policy approach of friendship and fraternity with China, launched the idea of a pan-Asian grouping that excluded the United States, and sought to renegotiate the terms of the US-Japan alliance. All three of these iconoclastic initiatives went nowhere.  Indeed mismanagement of the US alliance played a big part in Hatoyama’s ignominious downfall.

The Australian Labor Party, the Democratic Obama administration and the Democratic Party of Japan have been on similar learning curves since coming to power and being confronted by the strategic tensions in the Asia-Pacific stemming from the growing might and assertiveness of China.

Gillard has gradually taken more control of Australian foreign and security policy, particularly policy towards the United States and Asia. Gillard is shedding Labor Left shibboleths and tying herself to the alliance-oriented realism of Hawke and Howard. This is good politics. It distances Labor from the Greens (who ironically have joined China in criticizing the shift on uranium sales to India and the planned U.S. military presence) and strengthens Gillard against any Rudd leadership challenge. Moreover, it is consistent with mainstream opinion: Lowy Institute polling shows that over 80 per cent of Australians regard the alliance as either very or fairly important for Australia’s security.

For Obama, the change of heart towards China and regional security is likely tinged with disappointment. China has not grasped his outstretched hand. Rather, Beijing has continued to back North Korea, modernise its military in ways that target US power and become more assertive in the East China, Yellow and South China Seas. This has led regional allies and security partners, including Australia, to seek reassurance through a stronger U.S. commitment to the region. Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership trade advocacy, the ramped-up alliance with Australia, the push for the East Asia Summit to tackle the South China Sea problem and the ring-fencing of Asia-Pacific commitments from any U.S. defense cuts are the latest signs of this stronger engagement. This so-called ‘pivot’ to Asia makes good politics for Obama in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections.

Japan finds itself in the front line of China’s growing might and assertiveness. China’s intransigent support of its ally North Korea and the growing number of “incidents” between China and Japan around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have put paid to Hatoyama’s dreamy East Asia vision. His successors, Naoto Kan and Noda, have sought to repair the damage done to the alliance by Hatoyama, taken a stronger line against Chinese incursions, and committed to boosting Japanese maritime and air capabilities and moving them close to the disputed islands. While Hatoyama went against Japanese public opinion in his approach to the alliance and China, Kan and Noda are in step with the worried majority.

China’s growing clout and pushiness mean that leaders in the Asia-Pacific don’t have the luxury of ignoring foreign and security policy or downplaying strategic realities in pursuit of idealistic initiatives that pander to the Left. It looks like Gillard, Obama and the Democratic Party of Japan have learned this lesson – and not before time.

Malcolm Cook is Dean of the School of International Studies, Flinders University. Andrew Shearer is Director of Studies at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.


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