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A brief history of Sino-Australian political relations from 1949 to 2020

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and Mr Xi met for a bilateral talk during the G20 Forum in Hangzhou.(Supplied: Twitter)

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To understand what is happening now requires an understanding of history. The recent Sino-Australian relations have been like a roller coaster ride, which needs to date back to history at least from 1949.

There are several characteristics worth mentioning in Sino-Australian relations. First, there have been diplomatic ups-and-downs between the two governments due to the divergence of the two countries’ political systems and ideology. Second, by comparison, bilateral ties have generally been improving for decades due to the reciprocal economic complementarities and cooperation despite the recent trade disputes. Third, Sino-Australian relations “has become more unequal with the passage of time” due to China’s rise. Fourth, the influence of the US on the foreign policy of Australia cannot be underestimated. In terms of structure, this part will be divided into four periods, posited on the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1972, the outbreak of Tiananmen Incident in 1989 and the recent decline of bilateral relations starting from 2015 with additional illustration of the influence of the US in Australian foreign policy.

The Pre-recognition politicial relations from 1949 to 1971

Graeme Dobell argues, “China has always loomed in the Australian consciousness”, possibly because Australia is geographically located in the Asia Pacific and surrounded by Asian countries with a significant number of ethnic Chinese. Historically, China was viewed in Australia as a threat, namely, “Yellow Peril”. The notion is a color-metaphor, full of racism. East Asians, especially the ethnic Chinese, are an existential hazard to other countries as immigrants.  Professor Gina Marchetti argues that

the rooted in medieval fears of Genghis Khan and Mongolian invasions of Europe, the yellow peril combines racist terrors of alien cultures, sexual anxieties, and the belief that the West will be overpowered and enveloped by the irresistible, dark, occult forces of the east.

In Australia, as a Western country located away from the West,  its Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, infamous as the White Australia Policy, was designed to prohibit Chinese settlers. “Fear of China and hostility to the Chinese immigrants were factors” that supported the Federation of Australia, and both factors existed for decades. The federating of Australia was the process by which the sixBritish colonies consented to unite and become the Commonwealth of Australia. Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt formally abolished the White Australia Policy in 1966 with the introduction of the Migration Act 1966. By legislating legal equality among European and non-European migrants, this new Act has opened a new immigration history era. It has been the most crucial step in forminga multicultural society in Australia.

However, Australia’s unique geographic location and huge disparity of population between Australia and China have decided that the natural insecurity of Australia as a nation, for that linguistically, historically and intellectually, Australian ancestry originates from Europe, and its vital economic partner and most crucial military ally is the United States, both far away from Australia. Furthermore, Gyngell argues there is always “fear of abandonment” in Australian foreign policy. Likewise, former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Gareth Evans and former Australian diplomat Bruce Grant confirm that

the evolution of Australian foreign policy needs to be assessed against a background in Australian politics of persistent anxiety about a threat from Asia: sometimes vague and undifferentiated, sometimes specific, but always there.

In this period, China was viewed in Australia as a threat, namely, the aforementioned “Yellow Peril” and “Red Menace”. Arguably, the Red Menace has always existed in the Australian society and the government until now,which is a term applied during the Cold War for describing a nation that faces the increasing authoritarian threat of communism. This term was used to refer to the Soviet Union, while nowadays, it has been employed to mean Communist China. Besides, the difference of scare only reflects the extent to which the Australian government fears the Chinese Communist Party. From 1949 to 1972, especially when Australian and Chinese troops participated in the Korean War as rivals and later the Cultural Revolution was launched in China, Sino-Australian relations were hostile to each other due to the fact they were both subordinated to different political and ideological camps: USSR-led communism and the United Stated-led capitalism.

The steady development of Sino-Australian political relations from 1972 to 1989

During this period, Sino-Australian relations encountered the most drastic ups and downs the bilateral ties have ever experienced. In 1972, the Whitlam Labor government’s election marked the most radical turning point in Sino-Australian history by establishing diplomatic relations with China in December of the same year. Despite the endeavor, Whitlam made, this new chapter of the bilateral relations is mainly dependent on the change of  China Policy from the strongest ally of Australia, the United States. More concretely, in the early 1970s, the American army was withdrawn from Vietnam, indirectly ending the military collisions with the People’s Liberation Army.At the beginning of 1972, Nixon has his dramatic visit to Beijing and Shanghai.

From 1972 to 1989, the bilateral relations were at the stage of steady development. Partly, the positive Sino-Australian relations can be attributed to the same view of opposing the Soviet threat, which facilitated the Sino-Australian cooperation. More specifically, in July 1973, the first Sino-Australian trade agreement was signed by the Chinese government and the Whitlam government. The visit of Whitlam to Beijing in late 1973 culminated in a joint communique, concurring with the promotion of views exchanges among the Sino-Australian officials. In 1976, during the period of the Coalition-led Fraser government, “the Australian Parliament even stood in silence in the honor” of Mao Zedong, when Mao passed away. In 1978, the Australia-China Council was built by the Coalition-led Fraser government to facilitate bilateral relations.

Furthermore, in the 1980s, with the economic reform of Deng Xiaoping and the incrementally frequent visits of Sino-Australian senior leaders, the Australian government saw the economic opportunities China may bring, and the Chinese government also realized the Chinese modernization might benefit from the support of Australia. Mackerras argues that “the mid-1980s saw the relationship reach a peak”. In 1984, the ALP-led Hawke government launched the China Action Plan, “an overall economic program towards China”, aiming to deepen bilateral economic cooperation. In 1985, Hawke told the Australian parliament that a ‘special relationship’ between the two countries was forming.

The realistic Sino-Australian political relations from 1990 to 2015

The outbreak of the Tiananmen Incident in 1989 was a devastating turnaround in Sino-Australian relations, bringing the vigorous relations to a sudden stop. To some extent, Deng’s economic reform gave Australia and the Western world an illusion that China tried to become more Western. Contrariwise, the Incident shattered misapprehension of the special relationship between the two countries and has pushed human rights to one of the central issues that needs to be addressed in the bilateral agenda until now. It is noteworthy that the negative influence of the Tiananmen Incident was in all domains. Antagonized by the Australian broadcasting of violence in Beijing, the Australian people, including politicians, business people, scholars and religious figures, unanimously condemned Beijing. All aspects of Sino-Australian relations were affected at varying levels.

Arguably, after the Tiananmen Incident, the attitudes of the Australian government has changed to be more pragmatic and national-interest-driven. Wang argues that  the reassessment of Sino-Australian relations “did not lead to a fundamental policy shift” in Canberra “and human rights were not emphasized to the detriment of Australia’s economic interests”. In 1993, as the first Australian Prime Minister after the Incident, Keating visited China, breaking the diplomatic ice, partly because he needed to push wool exports to China.

Noticeably, from 1989 to 2015, China and the comparison of world powers experienced earthshaking changes. The hazards of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998 and the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 lead to the economic meltdown of some Southeastern countries and the relative decline of the West. Bearing the two Crises, China has benefited enormously, even the most, from joining the WTO and other regional and global economic organizations as a member of economic globalization. At the end of 2010, China surpassed Japan and has become the second-biggest global economy, indicating that the global economic center has gradually transferred to East Asia. During this period, Hong Kong and Macao were subsequently handed over to China, enhancing China’s confidence. There is no doubt that bilateral relations have been increasingly asymmetrical during this time, leading to the concept of equal partners less possible.

From 1989 to 2015, facing China’s economic rise, on the one hand, the Australian government and business took advantage of the historical opportunities and have been more engaged in the Chinese economy. For instance, the Coalition-led Howard government was a firm“ supporter for China’s accession to the WTO” to share better Chinese economic growth. In 2014, the Coalition-led Abbott government and the Chinese government started to portray the bilateral relations as a “comprehensive strategic partnership” due to the incremental and robust trade relations and more frequent communication between top leaders of the two sides. On the other hand, due to the different political ideologies and systems, and the gradually widening disparity of the two countries, there have been strong concerns in the Australian government that China may leverage trade over Australia. Foot  indicates the sense of uncertainty and insecurity in Canberra that

Has Beijing worked to support the dominant norms of the international order, or has it striven to overturn them? Has it ever deserved to be called “responsible power”, a term defined by the dominant states, or has it acted irresponsibly? To place these questions more explicitly within an international relations framework, has China shown itself since 1949, and more especially during the period of reform and opening since 1979, as capable of be socialized into supporting global norms? Or, as realists would predict, have there been signs that its rising power over the past two decades has generated new tensions in the international system? Looking more to the future, what kind challenge does its enhanced capabilities pose to the status quo?

Despite the dilemma that the Australian government has to face and the political ups and downs between the two countries during this period, “the growing sense of independence in formulating Australia’s policy towards China, as well as the increasing saliency of trade considerations in implementing such policy, has transcended political and inter-administration divides”. Thus, to some extent, although there were still ups and downs during this period from the ALP-led Hawke government to the Coalition-led Abbott government in 2015, the bilateral relations “appears to have become less uncertain” and matured. Arguably, the Australian government started to view China either without unjustified fear as they had before 1972, or super optimism as they had before 1989.

In fact, the differences may only exist in the style of how different administrations approach China. For instance, the first Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd introduced a concept called “Zhengyou in Chinese that means to voice different opinions to benefit the Chinese leadership. By comparison, another Prime Minister John Howard preferred to deal with China on more practical issues.

The increasingly strained bilateral political relations from 2016 to 2020

Bilateral relations have deteriorated since the exacerbation of territorial disputes in the South China Sea in 2016. The Australian government criticized China for not abiding by the South China Sea Arbitration, a joint statement with Japan and the US. In response, the Chinese government expressed its strong displeasure through its state-owned media the Global Times, denouncing Australia as a “paper cat”. Currently, the Australian government is concerned that Chinese activity in the South China Sea may threaten Asia pacific security, thus influencing Australian sovereignty and security.

More importantly, Australia’s closest and strongest ally, the US, initiated a trade war with China at the beginning of 2018.  Since Australia often follows American foreign policy, the increasingly intense Sino-American relations have negatively affected Sino-Australian relations. In the same year, Sino-Australian ties soured further when Australia became the first country to officially ban China’s Huawei from its 5G network. A similar prohibition on Huawei was later executed in the US in 2019.

In terms of domestic politics, there are continuously more negative speeches about China.Australian politician Andrew Hastie urges urged the Australian government and public to realistically recognize the unprecedented democratic conviction and security threat from China. He even goes “as far as to compare the Western tolerance of China’s rise with the appeasement of Nazi Germany”. Hamilton argues Chinese infiltration in Australia is a “silent invasion”. The Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, one of most senior officers in the Liberal-Coalition-led Morrison administration, condemned China’s interference and cyber hacks in Australia and claimed that the policies of the CCP are incompatible with Australian values.

2020 may have been the most turbulent year for Sino-Australian relations so far. Facing the once-a-century Covid-19 pandemic, Beijing has taken trade actions against a series of Australian goods such as barley, cattle, wine, cotton and coal after the Morrison administration advocated an independent Covid-19 inquiry without consulting Beijing first.

The tension also extended to people-to-people exchange. Canberra has warned its residents against arbitrary arrest in China. In contrast, Beijing has cautioned against studying and visiting Australia due to purportedly increasing racism and discrimination against people of Chinese and Asian descent. At the end of 2020, Morrison reacted furiously and demanded an apology from Beijing to an image tweeted by a Chinese diplomat showing an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child’s throat, which has further shadowed current and future relations.

Meanwhile, despite the global pandemic, there is increasing scrutiny in Australian media, including of the Hong Kong anti-extradition bill, the Xinjiang re-education camp, and China’s political donation to Australian political parties, Chinese spy students, the fight between Hong Kong and Chinese students in Australia, the defection of Wang Liqiang, Huawei backdoor suspicion and the detention of Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun. According to the Lowy Institute poll in 2019, Australians’s trust in China to ‘act responsibly’ has dropped to 32 %, a 20-point decline from 2018. In 2020, trust in China has deteriorated to 23%, the lowest point in the Poll’s history.

Whatever, if any, evidence underpins these narratives or not, they seem to point out one reality: the plummeting state of Sino-Australian relations. Geoff Raby, former Australian Ambassador to China, even argues that Sino-Australian relations are at their lowest ebb since 1972.It may be controversial to argue that the current bilateral relations are worse than the relations in 1989, but it is appropriate to point out the reality that the Sino-Australian relations have been incrementally damaged. The Australian government’s dilemma is the overreliance of the Australian trade upon China and the exacerbated political disagreement. Jonathan Pearlman argues that “security and economics are tugging Canberra in different directions, as are its values and its interests”.

The Influence of the United States in Australian foreign policy

Undoubtedly, the Australian foreign policy has been influenced by the American government, as Australia has been called the “fifty-first state” of the US. Australia and the US have the same language background, similar European ancestry, similar political systems and strong economic ties. More importantly, in 1951, Canberra and Washington agreed on the Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty (ANZUS), regulating that “an attack on either country’s armed forces or territory in the Pacific area” means “common danger” for the three countries. Since the US abolished its responsibilities to New Zealand due to the disputes of nuclear-armed ships, the ANZUS has become a bilateral treaty between Australia and the US and, separately, between Australia and New Zealand.

Given the American economic and military power around the world and the substantial disparity of Australia-American strengths, it is easy to argue that the ANZUS is the cornerstone of Australian security, and the US is the most important ally of Australia. In fact, Australia followed the US’s leadership through the UN, in the Korean War in 1950, the Vietnam War in 1962, the Afghanistan War in 2001 and the Iraq War in 2003 and recognized the PRC after the Nixon government had changed its China policy. To underpin the above view, Tow and Albinski affirm that the “ANZUS alliance remains Australia’s primary security relationship”. The former Australian diplomat Dr.Alison Broinowski argue that

Australia uncritically and voluntarily imitates its major ally (the United States) and its minor ally (the United Kingdom) in most things, yet lacks the capacity to do them well and the independence to do them differently. Having taken the drug of dependence from birth, Australia seems allied and addicted to it.

Thus, it is easy to question how independent Australia’s foreign policy is, especially its China policy, and argue that Australia does generally imitate the US’s foreign policy. As for the recent downturn of bilateral relations, Geoff Raby, an insider of Australia politics, believes that Canberra has developed policies to push back China’s rise in that the US started regarding China as a strategic competitor.

However, there is some policy flexibility in the Australian government, mainly economic-interests-motivated. To cite an instance, despite the opposition of the US, Australia participated in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015 and leased the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company in the same year. Australia took the position as an outsider in terms of the Sino-American trade war, suggesting the two sides to end the fight to avoid the risks of collateral damage to Australia. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Australian government adopted a hostile attitude towards China, the wheat trade between China and Australia“reached a significant level”.

Yuan Jiang is a Chinese PhD student currently studying at the Queensland University of Technology, Australia. He is affiliated with the QUT Digital Media Research Centre, focusing on the Belt and Road Initiative. He completed his master’s degree in political science at Moscow State Institute of International Relations as a Russian Speaker and bachelor’s degree of law at Shanghai University. He served as an Account Manager of ZTE Corporation and special correspondent in Asia Weekly and The Paper/Pengpai News, both in Moscow. His writing has also appeared in The Diplomat, The National Interest, South China Morning Post, Russian International Affairs Council, Australian Outlook- Australian Institute of International Affairs, China Brief-The Jamestown Foundation, Global Times (English Edition), Modern Diplomacy, US-China Perception Monitor, Southern People Weekly Magazine, People’s Daily (Overseas Edition), Caixin and Kanshijie Magazine. As a Chinese student and journalist, he was invited to comment on Financial Times, Russia Today and some Russian TV and radio talk shows several times. He tweets at @jiangyuan528. For more information, please refer to his LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/jiangyuan528/

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East Asia

Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China

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image source: chinamission.be

There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.

Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.

By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.

The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.

China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.

Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.

The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.

A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.

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Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question

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image credit: kremlin.ru

The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.

Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.

Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.

However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.

Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.

During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.

Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.

Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.

If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.

From our partner RIAC

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Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?

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Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.

One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.

In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.

To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.

The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.

Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.

Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.

From our partner RIAC

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