Australian Prime Minster Julia Gillard met with her Japanese counterpart, Naoto Kan, in Tokyo last Thursday. In addition to expressing her heartfelt support for the Japanese people after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis, Ms. Gillard pledged to move “forward a vision for bilateral security and defense co-operation” with Japan. Mr. Kan agreed.
Today, Ms. Gillard is in Seoul meeting with South Korean Prime Minister Lee Myung-bak. According to Tokyo sources, she will likely be seeking to establish regular defense talks between the Australian and South Korean militaries.
While Ms. Gillard will be stopping in Beijing next, Chinese leaders have been monitoring her trip with great apprehension. Closer defense ties between Australia, Japan, and Korea seem to lend credence to the notion that a military coalition of American allies might be taking root in East Asia.
The idea that the US might seek to block China’s rise is already deeply entrenched in groups of nationalistic youth who make up much of China’s blogosphere. Suspicion runs so deep in some groups that respected Chinese academics have accused the US of invading Afghanistan simply to surround the People’s Republic of China. But if Chinese leaders see this as proof of their fear that “the west” seeks to encircle China, they should be reminded of their role in this self-fulfilling prophesy.
Last year China took an unusually assertive stance in the region, provoking a strong reaction from its neighbors and the US. From the Sino-Japanese trawler incident, to broader disputes over territorial claims in the East and South China seas and the Senkaku islands, to China’s shifting export policy on rare earth elements, China’s foreign policy in 2010 unraveled much of the goodwill of its “charm offensive” and earned it the suspicion of most powers in the region.
But whether China’s actions last year are the chicken or the egg does not matter as much as how the US and other countries respond going forward. Stronger military ties that could serve to constrain the PRC are the result of China’s perceived aggression in 2010. This must be made clear to Beijing.
However, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and other counties looking to hedge their bets against a rising China should do so carefully. Suspicion begets suspicion, and spiraling insecurity is difficult to stop. When Ms. Gillard visits Beijing, she should work to improve military to military relations between Australia and China. Transparency and dialogue cannot always stop conflict, but uncertainty and poor communication frequently hastens it.
— Jordan D’Amato