Islands in Dispute – Issues for Australia

COUNCILLOR COLUMN: The current tension between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands (called the Senkaku Islands in Japan) is just the latest in a series of sovereignty disputes that have soured relations between many states bordering the seas off East Asia. But this crisis seems especially serious because it involves the world’s second and third largest economies. As well, it is nurtured by bitterness between the Asian giants dating back to World War ll and has occasioned demonstrations of ugly nationalism on both sides. The crisis is yet one more cause for us to reflect on the strategic future of the Asia Pacific. Some analysts see problems like these as evidence of the persistence of power politics in relations between states.  They warn that Asia is not likely to escape the pattern of violence that has troubled other parts of the world – a common lament is that “Europe’s past will be Asia’s future”. Others of a more optimistic bent have argued that the world has changed; that countries like Japan and China are integrated into a global and regional trading order that reduces the likelihood of armed conflict. This notion of a “commercial peace” is a favourite of liberals everywhere and is credited, for instance, with the stability that has been a feature of West European international relations since World War ll.

Australia cannot be indifferent to strategic developments in East Asia. China and Japan are Australia’s largest export markets, and China is our largest source of imports. And much of this trade necessarily passes through the South China Sea. Disruption of this would be a serious blow for Australia. As well, the US has defence links with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, and Australia is linked to the US through ANZUS. Should the US be dragged into a conflict in the area, Australia could be forced to make some very difficult choices indeed. Australia could well be threatened by developments in the Asia Pacific over which we have no control: the possibility of an attack on this country early in 1942 is surely a reminder that this is not a new dilemma.  The current tension between China and Japan is a warning to some Australians of the dangers attaching to our ties to Washington. But equally, others will argue that it simply reflects the uncertain nature of our future strategic environment and that in such circumstances Australia should cleave more closely to the US. This debate has a long way to run.

Bob Howard is a Councillor at the AIIA NSW and a lecturer at the University of Sydney’s School of Government and International Relations.

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