NOTES ON THE NEWS: It has become fashionable to argue that the theory of the tyranny of distance – the eponymous 1966 book by Geoffrey Blainey that argued Australia’s geographical remoteness shapes our identity and outlook – is outmoded. We have come to believe we are now a significant global player in Asia, and a valued participant in G20 and the East Asia summit.
Unfortunately this is myth rather than reality. We are still out on a limb. You have only to travel to the main Asian capitals or meet their opinion formers and decision makers to realise that Australia is not regarded as a particularly significant or important country, except for its boundless mineral resources and huge reserves of energy, though the government is making it harder and more expensive to exploit the latter.
The overseas press pays little attention to Canberra politics, and our own media’s coverage of the region continues to diminish, with few exceptions. This week has provided a good example.
Japan’s resurgent prime minister, Shinzo Abe – who, in his few weeks back in office has achieved a level of popularity Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott can only dream of – announced his country is to join the negotiations for the establishment of a Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, as it is usually called.
The TPP is a big, bold idea. It’s essentially an Asia Pacific free trade agreement, being promoted by the Obama administration. What is interesting is the list of intended participants – Australia, New Zealand, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Chile, Peru, and now Japan. China is not included in the list, nor is South Korea, Russia or Indonesia.
Although the draft text remains largely secret, the outline indicates that the agreement is wide-ranging, covering some 20 areas, including competition, customs, e-commerce, intellectual property, investment, industrial relations, and trade.
In seeking Japan’s participation in the TPP, Abe is taking on many in his own Liberal-Democratic Party who oppose the idea – these include the farming community who believe that the county’s notorious protection of the market for their crops will have to be dismantled.
But Abe has shown himself prepared to take risks. He has taken a big gamble with his decision that Japan will join the American program that will allow it to make and sell parts for the F-35 stealth jet, which, at a cost of $US 300 billion and rising, is the biggest military program in history.
That Japan should join an organisation with an acronym ALGS – Autonomic Logistics Global Sustainment – is hardly likely to excite attention in television newsrooms. Doubtless it will provide a valuable technological transfer and much-needed work for Japanese defense manufacturers.
Among those expected to benefit are Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd, Mitsubishi Electric Corp. and IHI Corp.
The first risk for Japan is that the plane, which has yet to undergo full combat testing, may fall far short of its target of 3000 sales.
“Japan should stick with the Mitsubishi ATD-X stealth plane”, said one British defense analyst. “The F 35 is a lemon. Unless Japan is being hired to fix the problems that the Americans cannot, even with all the billions of dollars it has thrown at it”.
The problem for Japan is similar to that experienced with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner – as complications develop, so customer, like Qantas, cancels or postpones orders.
In the case of the F–35 the task of achieving sales is made more difficult by widespread cuts in defense budgets, starting with the United States. The F–35’s US manufacturer, Lockheed Martin last month warned that sequestration could lead to contract terminations or postponements, factory closures and the loss of thousands of jobs.
To make matters worse, none of the F35’s potential immediate purchasers are in Asia. Australia has expressed a definite interest in the plane, but Canberra’s own budgetary problems make any hard commitment unlikely until after the publication of the defense white paper later this year.
Even if these many difficulties can be quickly overcome, Abe faces another problem. Under Japan’s non-export principle for arms, its companies may not ship weapons of weapons parts to countries involved in, or about to be embroiled in, international conflicts that are not sanctioned by the United Nations.
The countries that form ALGS, apart from the United States, are Britain, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey. In the current state of geopolitics it is well within the bounds of possibility that Israel and Turkey, as well as Britain and the US, could be involved in such combat.
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga has said that if this were to happen, Japan might withdraw its supply of component parts. It seems much more likely that Abe will want to change the rules.
Abe is setting a cracking pace on these and other changes. Back at home I get the impression that both these important issues are being swept under the carpet. Neither the future of our defence and the hardware we need, nor our key trade relations are getting much attention from our politicians.
Colin Chapman is the President of the AIIA (NSW)