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Japan-Australia relations are just fine

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23 March 2010 10:21

Joel Rathus is a Phd candidate at Adelaide University and a Monbusho Scholar at Meiji University.

Much ink is being spilled in Australia about the state of the Japan-Australia relationship, including by the Lowy Institute's Malcolm Cook.

While concerns were raised almost as soon as the Rudd Government took office, this latest attack of nerves is due to Kevin Rudd's pledge to bring Japan before the International Court of Justice if Japan's whaling fleet is not recalled. While urgent prose about the dangers posed to our relationship might sell better in the ideas market, it is beholden to those who consider themselves Japan watchers to remain calm and balanced in their assessment about affairs.

Herewith, four points in response to Malcolm's piece.

Firstly, regarding the effect on Japanese popular sentiment towards Australia, no doubt the whaling issue is costing us. But how much? Malcolm pointed to the public surveys conducted by the cabinet office, which apparently show a fall of 15% of those who feel positively to us and a rise of 20% of those in Japan who do not feel positively.

However, in 2008 the question changed. In 2007, it read 'How do you feel towards Australia and New Zealand', and in 2009 it was 'How do you feel towards the countries of the Pacific.' The Japanese public is just as likely to think of Hawaii as Australia with such phrasing. Moreover, as this is the first year of this phrasing, there is no baseline to compare. This polling, while interesting, simply can not be used as evidence for the claim that Japanese public opinion is turning against Australia.

Secondly, regarding the impact on the Free Trade Agreement under negotiation between our two countries, Australia was not close to getting the FTA signed even during the Howard administration. And while Australia's anti-whaling stance may annoy the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which is an important player at the FTA negotiating table, its significance is overstated.

An FTA, if it is signed, will be a political decision by Tokyo. With Hatoyama declaring as recently as Wednesday his desire to 'break open' Japan and engage strategically with neighbors, anything is possible on Japan's side regarding FTAs. But that decision will be made based on Japan's unique domestic political circumstances, and is thus hard to predict – whaling might be a factor, but it is not a top order variable.

Thirdly, regarding defense cooperation, the Acquisitions and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) should go ahead independent of the whaling issue. To call off progress on ACSA at this stage would take more political effort and entails more political risks than it is worth.

It was agreed that negotiations would start in early March, and I assume they are underway at the official level as there is a commitment to have the agreement ready by the time of the 2-2 meeting of Defense and Foreign Ministers. No one in Japan I have heard or read has linked the progress on the ACSA to the whaling issue; in fact, Nikkei claims the opposite. 

Fourthly, regarding nuclear non-proliferation, as Sam Roggeveen has pointed out, there is no friction on nuclear policy. Why would there be? Japan and Australia are on the same page on this issue, like much else. As for Australia not being mentioned at parliamentary speeches by Hatoyama and Okada, it seems a bit of leap to interpret that as a snub in any meaningful way. Okada has mentioned the Evans-Kawaguchi Commission in the Diet on other occasions; it is certainly not taken for granted even if it does not feature every speech.

Our relationship with Japan is mature enough to deal with the truth, in fact it deserves it. And the truth is that the relationship is fine.

Photo by Flickr user Vanessa Pike-Russell, used under a Creative Commons license.

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