Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Australia, and managing Japan's insecurity

Reading Time: 3 mins

In Brief

When Kevin Rudd was elected Prime Minister in November 2007, many in Japan (and Australia) worried about the prospect of Australia shifting its diplomatic focus from Japan to China.

Rudd’s fluency in Mandarin and his long-time links to China brought out the insecurity in those who thought Australia’s increasing political engagement with China would come at the expense of its relationship with Japan, as if this were a zero sum game. Many of those critics see Japan’s relationships with the United States and Australia as a counter-balance to China.

This of course got worse when Rudd did not visit Japan on his first official tour abroad as the newly minted Prime Minister, whereas China featured prominently on his itinerary. The fury was bordering on panic and the oversight was widely reported as a diplomatic snub. Was this panic justified? Right after the election, key cabinet ministers such as Trade Minister Simon Crean and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith visited Japan in January 2008. Since then Kevin Rudd has made a couple of trips, including an important and significant trip to Hiroshima.

In addition to Rudd’s trips, 9 ministers in the Rudd government have visited Japan, for a total of 13 trips.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

Compare this rather busy schedule to the number of trips Japanese ministers, including the Prime Minister, have taken Down Under. Foreign Minister Nakasone visited Perth and Melbourne in May this year but this was a rare exception. In fact, he’s the only minister to visit since Rudd was elected. Australia 13, Japan 1.

Japan’s last three Prime Ministers hardly set their foot on Australian soil. Abe Shinzo attended APEC in Sydney but hastened straight back home to resign. Former Prime Minister Fukuda and the current PM Aso have not visited Australia. The last bilateral visit to Australia by a Japanese Prime Minister was way back in 2002 by Koizumi. The only minister to have visited between Koizumi in 2002 and Nakasone this year was Aso when he was the Foreign Minister in 2006.

Japan is worried that it is being pushed off the global map by China’s rise, or at least that the attention being paid to China is happening at its own expense. This is a crisis of self-confidence. Complaining about others giving attention to, and engaging with, China is hardly the solution. Few countries are so hung up on how their US ambassador ranks alongside the US ambassador to another country.

The Japanese press jumped the gun and prematurely announced star Harvard academic Joseph Nye as the ambassador designate before Obama loyalist John Roos was finally given the nod. The comparisons between Roos and Jon Huntsman, the next US ambassador to China and a long time China expert, started with complaints that the Obama administration was sending a fundraiser to Japan and a ‘real player’ to China. Roos is an insider in the Obama camp (unlike Huntsman who was introduced to Obama by Jeffrey Bader) and has the invaluable ability of being able to pick up the phone and reach the President himself at any time.

Whether Japan is getting the attention it thinks it deserves from its allies (and no objective analysis would suggest that it isn’t), making it a diplomatic issue with a Democratic administration in the US or a Labor government in Australia hardly helps Japan’s diplomatic credit. There are more substantive things in diplomacy than form and status measured by irrelevant yardsticks.

Japan is pre-occupied by domestic political and leadership problems. Brushing up on its diplomacy might also be given some attention.

There will be a new government in Japan soon and the first thing the Australian government should (naturally) do is invite the new prime minster for a substantial, historic trip to Australia.

4 responses to “Australia, and managing Japan’s insecurity”

  1. There are wide implications of Japan’s insecurity of itself and the jealousy of the rise of its neighbours. It is not just jealousy, but more importantly its resistance, some may say that is probably only the least of that matter, to others development.
    That is not helpful to the common goods of the region. Unless Japan can realise the inevitable reality that its superior past will not last forever and it has to treat others with equal rights and respect, the others will not treat it with respect.
    It is mostly a Japan issue and is up to the Japanese to resolve it. It is closely watched by its neighbours.

  2. This is a very important point. And, I also feel, even though both governments declared security cooperation in 2007 and have kept offcial minister-level frameworks, which include trilateral ones with the US, attention from Japanese politics is relatively low. It needs more momentum to move on.

    At the same time, however, between both governments, I believe most bilateral business items from cultural exchanges to strategic talks are being well discussed at high levels, and the recent FM Nakasone visit to Australia covered them too. It could be said, both have enough interactions.

    To get momentum back, agenda-setting for both governments’ official dialogues shall be important. Wider range of topics, such as development which is mentioned slightly in press release of Nakasone visit, they may want to discuss more deeply. The Kawaguchi-Evans committee on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament has seemingly not created a positive image of Australia, but it also could make Australia understand the GOJ position of aiming to achieve both disarmanent and credibility of extended deterrence.

    Also, if both decide to discuss more on regional cooperation and future architecture, like, how to manage and fit China into the region with a better framework, avoiding giving them wrong messages, it might attract more attention. Australia’s unique position with China may merit Japan and other countries, and we have to use it from this angle. The Australian White Paper might have created the wrong message to Japanese, like finally Canberra understands China potential threat, so it is getting more important for Canberra (and Tokyo) to propose comprehensive, not-misguiding picture of future architecture.

  3. In view of the way in which China uses its growing military and economic power, Japan has some justification in feeling insecure about the rise of China, to which Japan has made a substantial contribution through economic cooperation, investment and foreign aid. Not that China expresses its gratitude for this assistance. On the contrary it never lets Japan off the historical hook. The rise of China also makes Japan perennially preoccupied with the issue of its international status and relative ranking, and this has grown into an obsession vis-a-vis China’s burgeoning relationship with the United States. But once again, this is not altogether unjustified: it goes without saying that in extremis, Japan could not stand alone against China. But even in day-to-day matters, it needs a strong and secure relationship with the United States to feel it can deal with China on a more or less equal footing. Hence the kerfuffle over the competence and ranking of the two new ambassadors.

  4. Obviously, there have been some untrust between China and Japan, from time to time.

    I understand that Japan provided aid to China, although I don’t know how much over the years.

    I also don’t know the normal international practices regarding war compensations, although I understand that China did not ask for war compensations from Japan. I also know that many Chinese are or were unhappy with that.

    While Japan may feel that China is ungrateful to its aid, there have been impressions among many Chinese that Japan was half-hearted in providing assistance to China and did not like to see China to develop or become strong and rich, although it wanted to benefit from some opportunities. Was that because of its insecurity?

    In terms of security, it is understandable that China did/does not like to be contained internationally, with Japan as part of the containment and as the deputy of a superpower in doing it.

    So both sides may have their own stories and reasons to feel unhappy.

    But past is past and few can change the history. What is important is today and tomorrow. Both sides need to look to the future relations.

    Countries should respect with each other, no matter rich or poor, large or small, strong or weak. The relations between China and Japan should be based on mutual respect and trust.

    There have been periods when the relations between the two countries were good. Both should reflect on how they can have long-last good relations.

    China needs to remain a peaceful nation forever and an important international force for peace and stability of the region and the world, even when it becomes very strong in the future.

    Japan needs to realise that sooner or later China will become a very powerful country and few individual countries will be able to match its power, even probably the US.

    So the important issue is not to try to use the US to contain China, rather it is important to establish a peaceful, secure and stable international order where countries don’t threat each other with force, as it has been so often in the past.

    UN and some other regional forums as opposed to military alliance should be promoted as the mechanism to resolve any issues between countries. Will the alliance, even with the current most powerful country be always effective into the future?

    So what is important for security? Every country needs to have a rational, strategic and realistic view.

    I hope both China and Japan will choose the correct one and always have a good relation. They are two most important countries in the region. It is in the interest of each country.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.