Commentary: Japan PM Shinzo Abe’s harpoon hits the wrong target

05-Jan-2019 Intellasia | CNA | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Japan prime minister has done himself and his country a disservice for withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission, says Financial Times’ Philip Stephens.

Japan has fired a harpoon at the rules-based global order. In an announcement slipped out while friends and allies in the west were celebrating Christmas, Shinzo Abe’s government said it is quitting the International Whaling Commission.

Japan will resume commercial whaling this year, joining Norway and Iceland in defying the global norms designed to safeguard stocks of the extraordinary ocean mammal.

The decision has provoked expected protests from the conservation groups and governments whose efforts during the second half of the 20th century halted what had seemed an inexorable hunt to extinction.

But in the era of US president Donald Trump’s America First foreign policy, of rising nationalisms, of trade wars and of advancing authoritarianism, Abe doubtless hopes the water will soon close over his snub to one of the many multilateral organisations supporting the liberal international order.

Some in Tokyo think the move might actually reduce international controversy about Japan’s pro-whaling stance. After all, its fleet has long exploited an IWC loophole to carry out “research” hunts in the Antarctic.

Now the boats will operate only in Japanese waters. And who, beyond a few conservationists, will worry about a handful of Japanese fishing boats when the Russian navy is attacking Ukrainian vessels sailing in international waters?


At a glance, the Japanese prime minister may be on to something. The fate of the IWC scarcely fits on the same seismic scale as that of the open global trading system. Anyone who questions the stakes should recall that Trump went to the UN last autumn to celebrate selfish nationalism and denounce “globalism” in all its guises.

You could look at Abe’s decision through the other end of the telescope. Japan has been among the most faithful supporters of the global order, steadfast in its attachment to the international rule of law. Tokyo’s new readiness to walk out of the IWC surely signals the system is now beyond repair?

Explaining the decision, the government’s chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said that it had become impossible within the commission “to seek the coexistence of states with different views”.

Other members of the IWC had refused to accept Tokyo’s position that the moratorium on whaling that has been in place since 1986 had seen numbers rise to a level sufficient to allow the safe resumption of commercial hunting.

In its essence, there is no difference in this exposition from the position adopted by Trump on climate change.

Stripping out the hyperbole of his pronouncements, the US president argues that Washington takes one view of global warming and members of the Paris climate agreement another. So, to Trump’s mind, the US has made the reasonable decision to withdraw.

The US administration deploys much the same case when it threatens to leave the World Trade Organisation or disavows the international agreement to monitor Iran’s nuclear programme.

Like Trump, Abe in effect is saying that he wants multilateralism a la carte.

Of course Japan is fully signed up to the rules-based system except, that is, where a particular norm collides with its national preferences.

Surely it cannot have gone unnoticed in Tokyo that an increasingly assertive China adopts just this stance when it refuses to abide by international rulings on its territorial disputes with neighbours in the South China Sea?


Travel further along the road of pick and choose and the entire system soon collapses.

The rules-based system works for everyone only if everyone accepts that the benefits overall outweigh the inconvenience of occasional clashes between international norms and national preferences. The purpose of sharing notional sovereignty is to increase the real capacity to act.

Germany’s Angela Merkel put it well in her New Year message. National and international interests, she said, become indivisible in the face of global problems. The chancellor singled out climate change, international terrorism and unmanaged migration as vital areas of international cooperation. She might well have added to this list preserving the ecosystems of our oceans.

The pity is that Ms Merkel’s present legacy is that of a leader who thus far has been more eloquent in the advocacy of such an approach than diligent in its application.


Japan has no need to resume commercial whaling. Whale meat, once an important source of protein, long ago ceased to play any significant role in the nation’s diet.

The industry employs relatively few people, concentrated in a small number of coastal villages. But like Trump, Abe is appealing to his electoral “base”.

The villages are concentrated in parliamentary districts mostly controlled by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Whaling is part of Japan’s nationalist folklore. The prime minister has chosen to make it an emblem of national sovereignty.

He has done himself, and Japan, a disservice. The most powerful nations will always hedge their commitments to multilateralism.

Something resembling the present system can survive only with the solid backing of the next tier Germany and Japan prominent among them.

Abe might have pressed the point during Japan’s presidency this year of the G20 group of leading nations. The harpoon, though, has wounded his credibility.


Category: Japan

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