- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2005

SYDNEY, Australia — When Tokyo cast around for candi- dates to replace departing Dutch troops protecting the Japan Self-Defense Forces engaged in reconstruction work in southern Iraq, Australian troops were the ideal choice.

Prime Minister John Howard has been under increasing pressure from the United States and the United Kingdom to match his pro-Bush rhetoric with more ground support. After hostilities officially ended in May 2003, 160 Australian troops remained in Iraq, engaged in noncombat roles.

Observers say Australia’s skimpy postwar contribution embarrasses its military when it deals with UK and U.S. counterparts.

Last year, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer turned down a request from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to provide troops to protect the U.N. mission in Iraq.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told Tokyo in January that Britain would cooperate fully to ensure the safety of the 550 Japanese troops in mainly Shi’ite and generally peaceful Al Muthanna province, but he was not clear about which British units would be assigned that task. Japan’s military activities are limited under its postwar constitution.

Howard saw his chance

When Mr. Howard took a Feb. 18 phone call from Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi seeking his assistance, the Australian leader saw an opportunity to please his traditional alliance partners in the West while developing Canberra’s strategic relationship with Tokyo.

In a reversal of his policy of not sending peacekeepers to Iraq after the announced end of the war, Mr. Howard has committed 450 more troops there. Explaining his reasons to Australian reporters, he said Iraq was at “a tilting point.”

“It’s difficult. I know it’s not popular with some people, but it’s the right decision, and in the fullness of time, that will be demonstrated,” he said.

He said Japan’s continued presence in Iraq is vital. “Working alongside and in partnership with a close regional ally and partner such as Japan is very important from Australia’s point of view,” Mr. Howard added.

Canberra has been developing its military relationship with Tokyo since the end of the Cold War, but observers say sending troops to Iraq would provide an opportunity for service-to-service rather than political contacts.

Regional effect noted

“I think in this Asia-Pacific region, the Iraq issue is viewed less through the prism of a war on terror than how it relates to strategic affairs in the region,” said Hugh White, professor of strategic affairs at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Mr. White noted that South Korea has sent 3,600 troops to Iraq, more than Australia and Japan combined. He suggested that this was not out of Seoul’s loyalty to the United States but because it is looking for support on the Korean Peninsula.

Japan is looking to strengthen its own relationship with the United States to gain support in its political dealings with China.

“Although Japan has an excellent economic relationship with China, it has a chilly strategic and political relationship with Beijing,” Mr. White said.

Ongoing tension between China and Japan over gas fields that could straddle their maritime boundaries has been heightened by news that Beijing has commissioned a Chinese firm to carry out exploration in Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the East China Sea.

Mr. Koizumi’s contentious annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the military dead of Japan’s wars since the overthrow of the shoguns in the Meiji restoration of 1868, have added to the tension.

Japan’s new agenda

Tokyo has another agenda as well: It needs to make a bigger global security contribution to gain support for its bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Japan is still smarting from reaction after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It was excluded from the list of countries thanked by Kuwait for helping in the war effort because it failed to send troops and instead sent billions of dollars — a move dismissed as “checkbook diplomacy.”

“It was a humiliating failure of statecraft and Prime Minister Koizumi has now gone to exceptional lengths to be able to get domestic support to send troops to Iraq in a noncombat role, and this is viewed positively by Australia,” Mr. White said.

China’s new muscle

Australia, which until recently had been wary of increased Japanese involvement in the region, changed its attitude as China’s economic development accelerated, Asia analyst Stuart Harris said in a Rand report, “The Role of China in Australia’s Security Environment.”

Mr. Harris said the Australian Department of Defense has concluded that China’s continued economic growth will enable it to have a more powerful military.

“The future security environment in the region will increasingly be determined by the regional powers, rather than by those outside it, and especially by China and Japan,” he wrote.

Japan’s security arrangement with the United States, however, gives reassurance to countries in the region that its military development will be controlled.

Australia warned

In a surprise move before enacting its Taiwan anti-secession law, China warned Australia to be careful about how it treats the 50-year-old Australia, New Zealand and the United States (ANZUS) alliance, in dealing with the Sino-U.S. conflict over Taiwan.

Beijing says the alliance could threaten regional stability if Australia is drawn into taking sides on the issue. Under the pact, Australia is obliged to support the United States should China resort to force over Taiwan.

“We all know Taiwan is part of China, and we do not want to see in any way the Taiwan issue become one of the elements that will be taken up by bilateral military alliances, be it Australia-U.S. or Japan-U.S.,” He Yafei, China’s director general of North American and Oceanic Affairs, told the Australian newspaper.

“If there were any moves by Australia and the U.S. in terms of [ANZUS] that is detrimental to peace and stability in Asia, then [Australia] needs to be careful,” he added.

Australia’s foreign ministry said there were no plans to downgrade the ANZUS alliance.

By throwing its weight — if only 450 soldiers — in support of Japanese troops in Iraq, Australia could be trying to hedge its bets in the region.

“I think that is one dimension of the developing military relationship with Japan,” said Aurelia George Mulgan, a Japan specialist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

“The Japan Defense Agency especially would like a broader anti-Chinese alliance in the Pacific, but neither of these countries — Australia or Japan — really wants a confrontation with China, as economically, they both have much to lose,” Miss George Mulgan said.

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