Saturday 13 Aug 2022 | 19:38 | SYDNEY
Saturday 13 Aug 2022 | 19:38 | SYDNEY

Australia-Japan relations are not 'fine'


Malcolm Cook

24 March 2010 11:10

My thanks to Joel Rathus for his concern about the state of my nervous system, especially as we have never met. I can assure him that he is wrong and that my nerves are fine. As for Joel's substantive points:

  • On the polling numbers, I did note in my original post the unfortunate change in the wording of the question and how that undercut the comparability across time. However, the shift in opinion from October 2007 to October 2009 is so stark I thought it worth noting. As for Joel's claim that the revised question about 'countries in the Pacific' could lead respondents to think of Hawaii as much as Australia, this would likely boost the latest poll numbers, making the sharp fall-off over time even more telling.
  • As for the FTA negotiations, I wonder if Australian negotiators or previous negotiation partners with Japan would be so dismissive of MAFF. The tortured history of Japanese FTA negotiations do not seem to support the idea that MAFF is a secondary player. The populist politics down under against Japanese whaling simply adds more to the arsenal of those in Japan, in MAFF and beyond, not keen on a comprehensive trade deal with Australia.
  • On ACSA – oddly, the Nikkei article Joel uses as rebuttal does note that some Japanese law-makers have linked (in a bad way) tensions over Australia's anti-whaling populism and ACSA. It then quotes Foreign Minister Smith saying that there is no problem at all. The Nikkei article proves the point of my original piece.
  • On the ICNND, I take Joel's point that Okada has mentioned it before in parliament. Dan Flitton also makes this point. Still, I have been underwhelmed with the lack of coverage the ICCND report has received outside Australia, including in Japan. The speeches I cited seem to me to simply be part of this story of underwhelming returns. The ICNND website ironically seems to support this point, even though its choice of media mentions is certainly selective. For example, it seems to omit all media and opinion stories critical of the ICNND report, such as this one.

Overall, I think Joel has overreacted to my piece. For me, it is not that the heightened anti-whaling rhetoric and the repeated threats to take Japan to court are going to kill off the FTA negotiations or ACSA. Rather, it is that this tawdry exercise in populism is causing friction in the bilateral relationship for no foreseeable benefit.

The poll numbers, the fact that Japanese legislators are linking ACSA and anti-whaling populism, and that the whaling dispute is increasing the long-running tensions with MAFF all suggest some damage, damage that is unnecessary. The fact that the Prime Minister chose to reissue this threat the day before Foreign Minister Okada made his inaugural visit to Australia underlines better than anything this sad situation.

It strikes me that the obvious if inconvenient truth is that publicly and repeatedly threatening to take a major strategic partner to court over a fourth order issue for what appears to be solely domestic political concern is not a mature or good way to keep relationships perfectly fine.