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Howard scores big in China

The Japan Times: April 30, 2005

Howard scores big in China

Special to The Japan Times

SYDNEY — You can’t win ’em all. Fast-jetting Australian Prime Minister John Howard discovered that on his latest barnstorming through East Asia.

In Beijing he was buoyed by the success of signing on to a feasibility study aimed at preceding a free trade agreement (FTA). In Tokyo he got the usual welcoming smiles but no deal on an FTA. And at the last stop, the Boao Forum in China, his goodwill speech got a raspberry from Malaysia.

Undaunted, he jetted off to Turkey this week to attend a dawn memorial service at Gallipoli, scene of a World War I battle where the Turks defeated an attempted British-Australian-New Zealand invasion. ANZAC Day, as it is remembered here, is Australia’s collective memory of the real beginnings of nationhood. Hopefully, while in Istanbul, Howard learned a few lessons on how Turkey is laboriously negotiating to join the European Union.

Australia wants to join its friends at the East Asian Summit in Kuala Lumpur next December. First, though, it must show its good will is genuine by signing a treaty of amity and cooperation. The document has already been signed by the 10 member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It also has been signed, or is about to be signed, by newcomers Japan, China, South Korea, India and New Zealand. Odd man out is the nation that is, ostensibly, the most cooperative in regional affairs, Australia.

Malaysia is the member most vocal in insisting Canberra toe the signing line. First under the acerbic Mahathir Mohamad and now under Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, Malaysia is laying down the club rules. Sign the treaty or forget about an invitation to the Kuala Lumpur summit.

The subject came up again when leaders of the two friendly countries met during the Boao Forum. ASEAN membership was not on the agenda, and both men made the most of economic cooperation talks there. The Asian Davos — as Howard called it in reference to the annual meeting of world political and business leaders in Switzerland — was not the time for other Asia-Pacific countries to remind the Howard government of its stand in favor of possible preemptive overseas military action against terrorism threatening Australia. It is that stand that prompted Malaysia’s Mahathir to famously call Australia Washington’s "deputy sheriff."

But U.S. President George W. Bush’s good mate Down Under was not deterred from reminding Boao delegates to get "fair dinkum" about cleaning up their legal and investment systems in order to continue to attract more American and European Union investment.

For his part, Abdullah repeatedly referred to "the community." Howard’s talk was on "the region." Observers noted the Malaysian vision of shared Asian values and politics. They heard Howard emphasizing trade and investment.

"No country that does not wish harm to these countries should have any difficulty in acceding to the ASEAN treaty," Abdullah told delegates without naming Australia. "Accession to the treaty is absolutely indispensable to participation in the summit."

Questioned later, Howard shrugged off any suggestion of insult: "We don’t wish any harm. I don’t see it that way." Asked if he will, as most Australian advisers are urging, change his mind and sign the treaty, he conceded: "We’re going to study that. There’s no great hurry."

On-the-spot journalist Peter Hartcher, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, comments: "The benefit for Australia in joining the annual summit is unknown. But the cost is now clear — a moment of political embarrassment for Howard when he agrees to the motherhood principles of amity and cooperation."

But for now, great-survivor Howard, never easily embarrassed, is enjoying one of those moments of triumph he has come to expect from flying tours of East Asia. And why not? China is looking good, thanks to booming bilateral trade, and Japan is, as ever, a strengthening partner.

Pity about Tokyo, though. Nobody at this end expected a breakthrough that would lead to an in-principle agreement for a free trade deal like the one agreed in Beijing. But even a bone of hope tossed Howard’s way would have tasted better than the admission of grim reality he got from the highest Tokyo office. The admission: No deal is possible while Australia wants to include agriculture. The rice lobby rules the Liberal Democratic Party, it was admitted, and that’s the way Japanese life stays.

Old friend Junichiro Koizumi cited agriculture as the sticking point to FTA progress. Privately the prime minister held out little hope of a sea change, and Howard understood. Back in Canberra, the opposition Labour Party gloated. "Howard has to insist on agriculture being in a deal," demanded Labour’s trade spokesman Simon Crean. "It’s as simple as that." Ignoring that the newly agreed FTA with the U.S. is soft on sugar and beef trade, Crean added: "We cannot agree to an agreement that contains exclusions."

Not that Australia will rock the boat with its major trading partner. Two-way trade with minimal formality has long meant a great deal to Tokyo and Canberra. Japanese investment here, notably in technology-based industries, has served us well for generations.

Mutual benefits are worth a smiling concession or two. Maybe that’s why Howard and wife Janette took a trip down to the Aicho Expo and, in the Australian pavilion, smiled for the cameras while touching a hideous model of a bloated platypus.

Ebullient Trade Minister Mark Vaile is going gangbusters over an FTA study that Howard signed in Beijing. Mind you, Vaile is an enthusiast for bilateral trade deals, as Washington found out. In Canberra they quip that Vaile has never seen an FTA he hasn’t fallen in love with.

The complementary advantages of supplying China with raw materials, notably iron ore and energy, in return for cheap manufactures, such as clothing, are stressed by Vaile: "China’s economic growth forecasts over the next decade are phenomenal. It’s imperative Australia positions itself to take advantage of this major opportunity."

A joint feasibility study signed in Beijing highlights the extraordinary effect China is having on the world: "China’s demand for energy, resources, agriculture, specialty manufactures, and services will continue to grow. In the next decade it will likely overtake Germany to become the world’s third-largest economy."

Ever the pragmatist, Howard went quiet on nontrade matters. In talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, he didn’t raise his voice about the anti-Japanese protests. Such displays of realpolitik are music to Beijing ears.

Australia has joined the queue of 23 countries talking with Beijing over economic and trade agreements, although Howard tried not to look like a carpetbagger passing through the Beijing revolving door. Still, just minutes before he met Hu, Cuba’s Raoul Castro, Fidel’s brother and likely successor to the Havana dictatorship, strode out of the presidential suite.

The Canberra-Beijing talks to conclude an FTA will go on for about two years and likely give Australia a $24 billion-plus windfall over a decade — unlike those with Tokyo, which look like they will take forever — but nobody is placing bets that they will include such upsetting side issues as human rights in China.

Alan Goodall is former Tokyo bureau chief for The Australian newspaper.

 source: Japan Times