Does the frenetic diplomatic activity in Asia signal a new era in
regional solidarity, or will the competing strategic interests of China, Japan,
India and the United States undermine attempts to bolster Asian cooperation? And
how will China's current verbal assault on Japan influence the equation? For
answers, it might pay to look at the maneuvering of which Australia is a part.
When Australia's prime minister, John
Howard, traveled to Beijing recently he joined a flurry of high-level visits
around Asia. President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan has followed China's prime
minister, Wen Jiabao, to New Delhi, and assorted leaders headed this week for
Bandung, Indonesia, for the 50th anniversary of the conference that initiated
the Nonaligned Movement.
Some of this activity is aimed at
preparing the way for the first East Asia Summit, in Kuala Lumpur in December,
attended by the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, plus
China, Japan and South Korea - and maybe India, Australia and New Zealand.
Australia may have seemed set for
continued isolation from regional groupings, given the Howard government's
participation in the Iraq invasion, its close identification with the United
States, its refusal to sign up to Asean's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, and
its advocacy of pre-emptive action against its perceived terror threats in the
region. Instead, Canberra has recently been host to Indonesia's president,
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi of Malaysia, and is
now starting free-trade talks with China.
The Yudhoyono visit was especially
positive, with warm feelings over Australia's tsunami help canceling out much
past aggravation over East Timor and the Bali bombing and its aftermath.
Crucially, Australia softened its position on the Treaty of Amity and won public
Indonesian backing for its invitation to the December summit meeting.
Abdullah's visit broke the ice that has
long characterized official - but not unofficial - relations with Malaysia. But
Malaysia remains cool to Australia's (and India's) participation at the summit.
This may be partly a hangover from the era of Prime Minister Mahathir bin
Mohamed, who was determined to exclude Australia from regional groupings. But
there is now an evident divide within East Asia between those who want to keep
it a tight-knit group and those who want to balance the weight of China by
including India and Australia. Some also want to give the United States observer
status to reflect its military presence in the region.
Australia, meanwhile, has been attempting
to be loyal to its U.S. alliance while giving Beijing no grounds for complaint
about its position on Taiwan. This has helped protect its commercial relations
but done nothing to get China's backing for its inclusion in the summit line-up.
Indonesia and Japan clearly favor a wider
grouping. Singapore does too, but expects Australia to sign the symbolic if
practically meaningless Treaty of Amity - itself a direct descendent of the
Bandung Conference. Thailand, once a supporter of Australian engagement with
Asia, now leans toward the Chinese view.
Despite China's clout, however, it is the
consensus reached within Asean that will determine whether Australia and India
are invited, and the likelihood is that they will be.
Meanwhile there is a real attempt on all
sides to separate commerce from politics. Australia, once a fierce critic of
bilateral trade deals, is using them as a form of diplomacy with deals complete
or in the works with the United States, Singapore, Thailand and now China. No
one, least of all a complementary economy such as Australia, wants to be left
out of the hopes that China's economic growth will continue to power the region.
Whether the cat's cradle of free-trade
agreements in Asia actually leads to more trade is debatable, but it has been
evidence in principle of nations' commitment to the benefits of open trade and
the priority of economic development.
Japan has been left behind in all of
this, because of its domestic priorities, its preference for trade
multilateralism and its insistence on protecting its agriculture. But no one
questions its economic and military power and the region's need for its
technology and investment.
Asean members are anxious to stay well
clear of the Japan-China row over history - not least because some of their
national heroes cooperated with wartime Japan. But it may alert them to the
danger that this rivalry could thwart Asian cooperation.
If so, Australia, with its commodities
and strategic position, and India, with its now more open, higher-growth
economy, will find some space for themselves in East Asian affairs. And
Washington will have reason to be pleased, even though the Asia-Pacific Economic
Cooperation forum, which includes the United States, is probably headed for
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