We need to take decisions based on our own national interests. But we should take those decisions based on a knowledge of what regional countries think.
Prime Minister Abe is to be congratulated for showing the initiative to consult with some regional countries, including Australia, as the period before President-elect Trump assumes office rapidly shortens. But his initiative begs the question, “where are we?” Of course our Prime Minister can’t be both receiving Mr Abe here and travelling overseas himself, but he has Ministers and we have our own very important network of relationships in the region to tend, and benefit from. In particular, in addition to the countries the Japanese PM has just visited we should be consulting with Indonesia and Singapore, two important ASEAN countries with both of which we have strategic understandings.
Some years ago there was an untypical head of the British Foreign Office (also High Commissioner to Australia) who was very conscious of Asia, and of Japan in particular. On one occasion he even said that Britain would not think of adopting a position on any important issue without ascertaining Japanese views. That is almost certainly in the past now, but it provides a good template for us in regard to Indonesia—our large, close neighbour— in particular and in regard to our other important Asian partners, such as Singapore and the RoK, as well. At a time when no-one knows what is going to emerge from the United States—see Secretary-designate Tillerson’s remarks on the South China Sea as an example—we need to take decisions based on our own national interests. But we should take those decisions based on a knowledge of what regional countries think, and if as a result of that we can be part of an agreed regional position so much the better.
Geoff Miller was Director-General of the Office of National Assessments, and Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs. He was Ambassador to the RoK and Japan, and High Commissioner to New Zealand.