NOTES ON THE NEWS: Following the publication of the aspirational Australia in the Asian Century white paper, are our leaders in Canberra keeping us well briefed on what’s going on in the dynamic region to our north? Err, No!
This past weekend government played host to the newly appointed foreign minister of Japan, which, despite an economy that is less than buoyant, is still number three in the world, as well as being an important strategic ally. It was Fumio Kishida’s first overseas trip, and he’d come to Sydney from the Phillippines, from where the New York Times reported that Manila and Tokyo had agreed to cooperate more closely on maritime security.
It was, said the Times in a substantial report, “a telling sign of how China’s rise has helped turn former foes into allies”.
The Japanese foreign minister’s visit to Australia and elsewhere is being followed this week by a South East Asian circuit by Japan’s recently-elected prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who is visiting Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.
This is all part of an important new round of diplomacy by Japan to seek support in our neighborhood against China’s military assertiveness in the South and East China seas. While many South East Asian nations will be reluctant to take sides in the specific dispute between Tokyo and Beijing over the disputed rocks known as the Senkaku islands off Okinawa, in a strategic position for both countries’ sea routes, they are about China’s rhetoric and military build-up.
Thus Mr Kishida’s meetings on Sunday with Senator Carr and trade minister Dr Craig Emerson were important, although most Australians would have been unaware they were taking place.
The flagship ABC news half-hour on Sunday evening devoted approximately one minute in to the event with a report which told us nothing, and did not mention the purpose of Japan’s South East Asian diplomacy. I searched the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday morning without success. The departure of the excellent Hamish McDonald from Fairfax is a blow to the paper’s Asian analysis. has Like the ABC, The Australian did not tell us much either.
The poor performance by the Australian press was not altogether surprising. At the restricted press conference that followed the talks those who were permitted to attend heard only anodyne statements by Senator Carr and his guest, while only four questions were allowed – two from Japanese correspondents and two from Australians. Not surprisingly, these questions were hardly penetrating.
On Sunday evening I searched in vain on the Department of Foreign Affairs(DFAT) website for some enlightenment, but with nothing up there. At ten o’clock at night I gave up. On Monday morning there was a press release on the site, backdated to Sunday.
It did not enlighten.
To quote the section on security: “Ministers agreed on the need for the UN Security Council to deliver an effective response to North Korea’s rocket launch in December 2012. Security discussions also included Afghanistan, Syria, the Middle East peace process, Iran and conflicts in Africa including piracy off the Somalia coastline.”
No mention of the East or South China seas, or of China, no mention as to whether Australia was asked to buy into Japan’s maritime security agreement with the Phillippines, no mention of upcoming defence issues as revealed in the leaked defence white paper, no mention of Dr Emerson’s talks with the Japanese minister or the possibility of a free trade agreement, or the Obama administration’s proposed Trans Pacific Partnership, which was the subject of a whole day conference in Sydney in December.
We did ;learn that Senator Carr had not – as one report suggested – ignored whaling, but had reaffirmed Australia’s strong opposition to Japan’s scientific whaling, but we knew that anyway.
Senator Carr is one of the Gillard government ministers who can usually be relied upon to provide decent foreign affairs briefings. Both he and his department failed miserably on this occasion. When the prime minister is pushing the notion of Australia being a significant player in the Asian century, those of us who write about and try and analyze significant meetings deserve something better.