For years I marveled at the emotional and dramatic absurdity of Korea’s foreign policy, particularly as it was directed towards the best political, military and economic friends of Korea, the US and Japan, and how this damaged Korea’s national interests. For years President Roh openly expressed his interest in making Korea a “balancer” in East Asia — about as stupid as public diplomacy can get, which worked to alienate him from his US allies, which won him no new friends. Then there was Korea’s outraged reaction to Japan’s assertion that, Japan had sovereignty to rocks in the middle of the Japan Sea that Korea occupied militarily in the 1950s. Had they ignored this, the status quo would have been quietly preserved, but the loud, international outrage broadcast by Korea has ultimately resulted in many people believing that this is actually a proper border dispute. Basically, foreign policy is supposed to be handled by adults with a cool head, and an undergraduate with a basic foundation in realism or diplomacy could have picked apart the multiple and sophomoric stupidities in the conduct of Korean foreign policy.
Which brings me to Australia and its reaction to Japan’s whaling. For decades, Japan has hunted whales in international waters for “scientific research”, following an unorthodox reading of the treaty banning whale hunting, and sold the meat from the whales in Japan. This serves to preserve a few isolated communities with fisherman who hunt whales, but the meat is so unpopular it has a hard time being sold. The public in Australia are morally outraged by the hunt, seeing whales as the gentle and noble giants of the sea, and are appalled by Japan permitting and sponsoring the whale hunt. Australia has abstractly threatened legal action for years, although a winning legal action (except by outside observers), or how it would successfully be brought to the International Court of Justice. Japan basically thinks this is just Australian domestic electoral politics and is basically ignoring these threats of litigation.
Lacking a clear legal strategy, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has instead reverted to threatening and snubbing Japan in public, and recently announced a decision to skip a nuclear nonproliferation summit to be held in the US. Australia and Japan co-chair the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament. The announcement also came just before Japan’s Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada made his first visit to Australia.
What can we make of Rudd’s grandstanding for cheap domestic political gain? Australia’s conservative opposition is bluntly honest. Deputy opposition leader and shadow foreign minister Julie Bishop said, after returning to Australia from a trip to Japan, the she detected “a sour note in the Australia-Japan relationship” caused by the threats and posturing by the Rudd government. East Asian specialist Malcolm Cook called it “Australia’s single silliest strategic decision.”
The risks to Australia? It sours a relationship with a longstanding trade partner and its newest military ally; it could be cut out of the proposed East Asia regional community; and it undermines Okada, probably the strongest and most influential proponent of Australia in the new government. A government can denounce Japan’s whaling and not frenzy itself with self-righteousness — just look at New Zealand, which has a relatively careful policy on opposing Japan’s whailing activities with the clear objective of killing the fewest whales, preferably none, and achieving that objective with utmost urgency. Indeed, this policy is most certainly “realist” and “realistic.” But you could get more “Korean” in your foreign policy with the drama of Rudd’s government on the topic. I can only look forward to watching its spectacular failure, especially as it should help him with short-term domestic victories and perpetuate his term in office.