War history and the Commonwealth Pivot to Asia

There is something interesting developing between Japan and the old British-led ‘Commonwealth of Nations‘. Long out of fashion, the Commonwealth has been popping up again in an unexpected guise – the grouping of like-minded nations forging alliances with Japan.

Here are two recent examples :

1) Australian PM Tony Abbott’s speech to welcome Japan’s PM Abe on July 8, 2014 was a breakthrough in terms of the use of WWII history for contemporary geostrategic advantage. As I have suggested in this blog before (link), Prime Minister Abe’s ‘unapologetic’ style was seen as an opportunity for Japan’s adversaries to isolate it from partners and allies today. It seems to be working only in the case of South Korea, where Imperial Japan bashing is also good domestic politics. PM Abbott turned the table by acknowledging the respect Australians paid to those who fought for Japan in WWII:

“We admired the skill and the sense of honour that they brought to their task although we disagreed with what they did. Perhaps we grasped, even then, that with a change of heart the fiercest of opponents could be the best of friends.”

Abbott also made reference to the coming centenary of WWI, when the Japanese warship Ibuki escorted the Anzak convoy to the Middle East; another way of putting WWII history in a more nuanced context.
PM Abe was apparently prepared to reciprocate:

“Our fathers and grandfathers lived in a time that saw Kokoda and Sandakan.”

It was a reference obscure to many listeners outside Australia, but as a Sydney Morning Herald headline put it, Abe’s words caused the Australian Parliament to freeze in ‘a moment that stopped time’:

“…to Australians who know the story, it was the greatest atrocity of the Asian-Pacific war…In a world moved on and a region colliding in new ways, it was a moment to stop time.”

In his remarks to the Australian Parliament, PM Abe used stories of Australia and Japan’s postwar reconciliation to cement a very contemporary bond – a ‘Pacific community’ for the 21st century:

Australia and Japan have now freed ourselves from one old layer and are now moving towards a new “special relationship.” … Today, Prime Minister Abbott and I will sign an agreement concerning the transfer of defence equipment and technology. That will make the first cut engraving the special relationship in our future history.

It earned Abbott criticism at home:

“In his comments on the submariners Abbott verged on prostituting history for his own geo-political ends.”

And from abroad. In an editorial on 14 July, the Global Times said Australia was in no position to criticize China’s human rights record in part because it

“…used to be a place roamed by rascals and outlaws from Europe”.

But the response from China only confirmed that the post-war Asian consensus about Japan’s security role has been broken. Abe and Abbott’s bonding over shared war memories sent a new message – We fought, but with honour. There were atrocities, but we have put it behind us. Others may try to use history to divide us, but today’s common interests are too strong for us to let that happen.

2) The UK Minister for Asia, Hugo Swire presented the UK’s Asia strategy on 15 July, and had this to say:

More broadly, the Commonwealth gives a unique extra dimension to our relations with many countries in the region – those I have just mentioned, plus several of the Pacific Islands…We have reinvigorated our relationships with our Pacific allies Australia and New Zealand, not least through a highly successful AUKMIN process,..Although we are not a major military power in the region, the UK makes an important contribution. As well as our military involvement through the Five Power Defence Arrangements and the Brunei Garrison, the Royal Navy continues to work closely with counterparts from the US, China and Japan… With Japan, for example … our joint work has entered a new phase. We have made clear that we welcome a greater role for Japan in international peace and security, which will allow more practical cooperation with the UK and other countries in areas such as peacekeeping operations and humanitarian and disaster relief. During Prime Minister Abe’s visit to London, we announced we would develop a “comprehensive framework” to deepen our security co-operation. This builds on an agreement to collaborate on the research, production and development of defence equipment signed last year…The final pillar of our approach to Asia Pacific is the promotion of our values. Throughout the region, Britain speaks in support of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It is of course vital that like-minded countries in Europe and America, in particular, do so in a concerted and coordinated way…

Is this “The Rebirth of the (British) Empire“? Although there is some congruence with PM Abe’s ‘democratic security diamond‘, it is no use trying to frame the emerging alignment of nations on Asian security issues according to the old pink zones of Britain’s Empire. Anyway,  too many of the countries in question (Burma, Vietnam, USA) were never Commonwealth members anyway. However, we may see  more attempts to select from our common history and patch together a sense of historical community between Europe, America, Australia, New Zeland, Malasia, Singapore, India, Myanmar and the rest. Look out for commemorations of our alliance in WW I (so useful to contrast against what China and Russia have started to call the ‘war against fascism‘). Look out for other old/new allies to adopt the ‘put it all behind us’ line and incant about shared values of democracy, human rights, rule of law, and free trade. Never mind the patchy record of the old commonwealth on these standards – it’s the contrast that counts. As long as it comes across as the alternative to dictatorship, corruption and the state controlled economy, the message will be clearly heard.

 

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