Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 16:40 | SYDNEY
Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 16:40 | SYDNEY

Tokyo ponders southern righteous wail


Graeme Dobell

4 March 2010 13:51

In raising anew the threat to take Japan to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Rudd has certainly grabbed Tokyo's attention. Japan's diplomatic chattering class is, however, just a bit bemused about what it all means.

I've had an email conversation with a senior Japanese journalist who has a long association with Australia. He offered these three versions of what Rudd is thinking in threatening Japan with the ICJ:

  1. Given recent political setbacks, Rudd cannot afford to defer the campaign promise any longer, even though he knows Australia's chance of winning the case is, at best, uncertain. Even if Australia loses the case, it will be long after the election and its political effect is limited. He can still claim that he tried all avenues to stop Japan's whaling. He is not that enthusiastic about the anti-whaling cause itself and does not care if Japan's position is vindicated by the ICJ unless that causes him to lose elections.
  2. A deal has been almost reached among major players on the whaling issue. Rudd's 'threat' is a Kabuki play for the domestic audience and a prelude of a 'reluctant compromise' to save as many whales as possible.
  3. Rudd actually believes that Australia will win the case and he doesn't fear a waning Japan. He may or may not know that Australia's win at the ICJ would make more realistic the scenario of Japan leaving the IWC and unilaterally resuming commercial whaling.

Option two is the classic Japanese suspicion about dark deals and skulduggery behind the curtain. The third point is worth pondering. If Australia wins in court it might not save any whales because that could be the moment Japan walks away from the Whaling Commission. Such a result really would plunge a harpoon into the heart of the IWC.

In my responses, I have suggested that Australia's Prime Minister may not have a strong view either way about whether Australia would win or lose an ICJ case. What he does have is a high profile promise to be assertive.

The use of the ICJ option was a promise given amid the 2007 election campaign. In this election year, it is not a promise that will be abandoned. Any leader has only a limited number of mea culpas and policy U-turns in his kitbag. The Prime Minister is not going to use up any of that precious ammunition backing away from the ICJ promise. Being seen to stand firm on whaling is a political necessity.

Australia and Japan are so used to being in total agreement on most things, having an actual policy difference is a shock. My assumption is that whaling will not have any real impact on the broader relationship. The Australia-Japan effort at low-level hedging against China is but one example of the vital interests the two share. To be wildly optimistic, having a fight might actually do some good, by reminding both sides of all the things that are important to them. And all the things they share.

The other perspective is offered by Greg Sheridan, who argues the Government has engendered a lot of ill will in Tokyo for no purpose at all:

Japan is our largest export market and we owe far more of our wealth to Japan than we do to China. It is also, second only to the US, the linchpin of the entire politico-military order in the Asia-Pacific. It is furthermore our most important and consistent diplomatic supporter in Asia. In other words, the Japan relationship embodies fundamental Australian national interests.

It's always necessary to be able to say 'No' to other nations. And the bigger the other player, the harder and more sensitive the formulation of the negative argument. The ability to disagree is as significant an element in close friendships as it is with more problematic relationships. Judging when to say 'No' to the US, for instance, involves some different calculations than when dealing with India or China. Japan sits in much the same place as the US. We are not used to having hard-charging-knock-em-down international confrontations with Tokyo.

For several decades, our biggest difference with Japan — its agricultural protectionism — has been dealt with in the most civilised terms. Australia has been consistent in its attacks but always polite. By contrast, the language and energy of our mud-slinging at the European Community for the same agricultural offence always had a more pungent farmyard vigour. And a much higher emotional content. Clearly the European and Japanese policies had vastly different impacts on world markets, but the difference in language was marked.

Canberra often raged at Europe; with Japan it was more a resigned sigh of understanding before repeating the same complaints about the lousy economics and rampant politics of coddling aging rice farmers. Australia seems to get much angrier about whales than the damage Japan does to our cow cockies.

Photo by Flickr user Roger Montserrat, used under a Creative Commons license.