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19 August 2020

With Greg Earl

Allies in conflict

The leaders of Japan and South Korea both marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of the Pacific War at the weekend. Their speeches underlined the intractable nature of the stand-off between the two Western allies. These are Australia’s second-and fourth-largest trading partners, and the impasse between them is again threatening to unsettle the region.

In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in’s speech appeared to seek a new compromise with Japan over long-running tensions about war reparations. These tensions have spiralled out of control in the past year, with Japan removing Korea from a list of preferred high-technology trade partners and Korea retaliating by threatening to suspend an intelligence-sharing agreement.

Meanwhile, in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe made a more conventional speech, expressing regret about the war but avoiding any further apology. Four ministers, including Shinjirō Koizumi, son of a former prime minister and tipped to replace Abe as prime minister himself, marked the occasion by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates those who have died in service of Japan, including some war criminals.

The two nations are longstanding members of a broad Western alliance and the most sophisticated economies in Asia. If they aren’t able to forge a better relationship, it will be difficult to fashion an effective regional response to China’s rise and near impossible to manage a collapse of the North Korean regime, should that come about.

The Australian government often talks up its success in building the regional cooperation needed to manage China’s increasing assertiveness, but it has largely failed to acknowledge how relations between these key allies have declined over the past year.

Given the tenor of Moon’s speech, Australia should capitalise on any openness to compromise that this anniversary might have inspired, and encourage these two countries to find a new way to reconcile historical grievances.

Dealing with temple democracies 

Two events this month have revealed the growing role of Buddhist and Hindu nationalism in modern Asian politics. On 5 August, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for a new Hindu temple at Ayodhya, a site contested by Hindus and Muslims for five centuries. A week later, the newly elected Sri Lankan prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was sworn in at a Colombo Buddhist temple, making a number of symbolic gestures that highlighted his commitment to a government based on Buddhist philosophy.

Hindu nationalism has been on the rise in India for many years, but has gained new strength since Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party overpowered the once-dominant – and more secular – Congress Party. Buddhist nationalism, a key force in the ejection of the Muslim Rohingya population from Myanmar, is more prominent in Sri Lanka, where the Rajapaksa family have returned to government with strong support from the Buddhist-majority Sinhala population, but little support from other ethnic or religious groups.

To some extent, these developments have flown under the public’s radar as Australia has been focused on responding to Islamic extremism in Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere. This may change if the religious nationalism grows. Under Tony Abbott, the Australian government had close ties to Sri Lanka, partly as a result of managing refugee boat movements when Mahinda Rajapaksa was Sri Lanka’s president. And if Australia is to continue building regional cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, India is arguably the most important country for it to get onside.

Australia can do little to influence the changing cultural forces in Asian politics, but the developments in India and Sri Lanka demonstrate the need to understand how democracy can throw up many strands of nationalism and fundamentalism as emerging economies evolve.

Canberra’s Thailand dilemma

Thailand experienced its biggest street protests at the weekend since the military coup of 2014. This raises the prospect of yet another military crackdown on a reform movement. This time some of the protesters are provocatively calling for changes to the status of the monarchy under King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who only acceded to the throne in 2016.

Thailand is Australia’s tenth-largest trading partner, a valued interlocutor in regional diplomacy and a key player in the evolution of South-East Asia. And King Vajiralongkorn was educated at Duntroon military college in Canberra.

As one of the few Asian countries that weren’t subject to colonisation, Thailand’s feudal establishment has long resisted ceding real power to the emerging middle class. This resulted in a long rivalry between the royalist “yellow shirts” and the “red shirts”, who supported Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister from the country’s north.

But at last year’s election, the new Future Forward Party cut through this old rivalry to win the third-largest number of seats, suggesting Thai people are hungry for a new political settlement. The military government then used legal action to disband the party, one of the triggers leading to the current protests.

Australia joined other Western countries in imposing some sanctions on the military following the 2014 coup, after initially pursuing a quieter diplomatic approach. It may well face the same dilemma again – how to respond when a partner in the Asia-Pacific violates democratic principles.



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