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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 17:02 | SYDNEY
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Japan-Australia: Signs of damage

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COMMENTS

17 March 2010 08:41

Since the beginning of the 2007 election campaign in Australia, I have been worried about Japan-Australia relations.

I thought long-standing differences between Tokyo and Canberra over Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean could come to dominate the public face of the relationship. I also worried that the actions of the new Rudd Government, and particularly the Prime Minister himself, would deepen Japanese concerns that Canberra would focus less on Japan and more on its neighbour and rival, the People's Republic of China.

The coming to power of the Hatoyama Government added to these concerns. It seems clear to me that under Koizumi, Abe and Aso, Australia's strategic importance to Japan increased due to these leaders' world views, world views that the senior people in the Hatoyama Government clearly do not share.

It is boilerplate for governments of countries with a history of strong relations to dismiss such worries and claim that disputes over peripheral issues like whaling do not harm the basis of the bilateral relationship regardless of how much they are played up for retail political gain by one side or the other. Such issues are presented as the proverbial storm in a tea cup (handle or no handle).

Four developments in the bilateral relationship since late 2007, affecting four important and different bases of relations, suggest the boilerplate in this case is wrong:

1. Japanese public opinion: seems to be going off Australia, after years of steady improvement. The Cabinet Office in Japan regularly polls its population (all links in Japanese) on their feelings of warmth and affinity towards particular countries and regions. In October 2007, 67.7% of respondents expressed warm feelings towards Australia and New Zealand (Oceania) while only 20.8% expressed cool or cold feelings. Moreover, with a slight exception in 2003, Japanese feelings towards Oceania were gradually improving.

Fast forward to October 2009, and Japanese feelings towards Oceania and the Pacific (Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands) tell a very different story. Only 51.1% expressed warm feelings while 40.3% expressed the opposite. 

Now, it could be that Japanese feelings towards New Zealand and its more diplomatic approach to whaling have soured significantly or that the inclusion of South Pacific states in the 2009 survey explains this sharp fall in public opinion. Or it could be that views of Australia (the dominant country in the region) explain much of this decline, especially as Australian public and official rhetoric on whaling changed significantly from 2007 to 2009.

2. The FTA: the Rudd Government's more strident anti-whaling rhetoric and repeated unilateral threat to take Japan to the ICJ puts it in direct confrontation with the powerful Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. While the government ministry in Australia with primary responsibility for our anti-whaling policy is not a key player in the drawn-out FTA negotiations, its Japanese counterpart is.

3. Defence cooperation: the whaling issue has cooled Japanese political support for the planned bilateral defence logistics agreement that would be a significant advance under the March 2007 Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. Little progress on this agreement was noticeable from Foreign Minister Okada's first visit to Australia, a visit marred by the domestic politics of anti-whaling in Australia and the beginnings of the undeclared 2010 election campaign.

4. Nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament: even on this policy area, where the Rudd Government focused on Japan through initiating the Evans-Kawaguchi commission, all is not well.

In January, both Prime Minister Hatoyama and Foreign Minister Okada gave policy speeches to Parliament in which they mentioned nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Yet despite the launch of the Evans-Kawaguchi report in Tokyo by Prime Ministers Rudd and Hatoyama the previous month, neither of these parliamentary speeches mentioned this report. Both focused on the US-Japan alliance and President Obama’s interest in this issue.

In his speech, Okada did include this generic line on Australia: 'Australia is a strategic partner in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan will strengthen the relationship between the two countries in various areas including security and economic relations.'

Photo by Flickr user Thorsten Becker, used under a Creative Commons license.

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