Japanese whaling factory ship Nisshin Maru in Antarctic waters.

The Japanese whaling vessel Nisshin Maru in Antarctic waters. Photo: Supplied

A Japanese whaling fleet is approaching Antarctic waters claimed by Australia. Scores of giant mammals will soon endure a long, painful death in Australian waters.

Most Australians will be horrified by these events. Our government has sent aircraft to ''monitor'' all parties but seems lost in a sea of ambivalence. Meanwhile, the world awaits the International Court of Justice's decision on Whaling in the Antarctic.

Australia and Japan have developed a strong relationship since the end of the Pacific War. The Abbott government has moved to further strengthen the diplomatic and security relationship between the two countries - a process initiated under the previous Labor government but accelerated dramatically following the election in September.

The development of closer relations has been welcomed in Japan. The Japanese government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has consistently asserted shared values and a mutual commitment to international law as a foundation to closer co-operation. The issue of whaling will, in the coming months, test the extent to which the two nations have shared values and a common commitment to international law.

It has become clear over recent years that the vast majority of Australians are committed to improving the way in which we treat those creatures at our mercy. Polls taken in Australia consistently demonstrate the public's desire to see animal welfare standards improved. The whaling issue has also been followed closely.

Public opinion, unfortunately, has not yet tangibly shifted public policy. The action that our federal government has taken in respect to whaling has been far stronger than its insipid response to the barbaric cruelty inflicted upon our live cattle exports - but there is no local industry group working to balance the weight of public opinion in respect to whaling.

This is the first time that Japan has stood in front of the International Court of Justice. Japan's resolve on this issue has been hardened by its perception that Australia is determined to impose its cultural values. The counsel for Japan compared the case with a "moral crusade" or "civilising mission". Australia's case was labelled "an affront to the dignity of a nation" - an attempt to sacrifice "the traditions and cultures of people … to appease other people's selective moral judgments".

This is not the first time that cultural diversity has been used in defence of acts of cruelty committed to sentient beings. Consistent with other occasions, such arguments have been largely fabricated. Contrary to the strong rhetoric used during the hearings, whaling is not a traditional aspect of Japanese culture or an expression of beliefs held by the majority. Polls conducted by the Nippon Research Centre found that the majority of Japanese are indifferent to whaling. It is also a gross exaggeration to suggest that whaling has a long history in Japan.

During the hearing that took place in June and July, Japan's representatives emphasised the need for the court to consider the legality of Japan's activities under international law and not "ethical values". Australia's (then) attorney-general Mark Dreyfus concurred that only Japan's failure to comply with its legal obligations with respect to commercial whaling is relevant to the case.

Japan's deputy foreign minister, Koji Tsuruoka, expressed his hope that "Japan trusts that the outcome of this case upholds stable multilateralism" but also suggested that "when one morning you find your state bound by the policy of the majority … the only way out is to leave such an organisation".

This statement is deeply troubling, and inconsistent with Japan's emphasis on international law and multilateral actions - rhetoric often applied to issues such as its territorial disputes with China.

If Japan were to react in the manner intimated by its deputy foreign minister, it would not be the first time it has retreated from multilateralism. In 1932, the Lytton Report into Japan's involvement into the Mukdon Incident was released by the League of Nations. The report rejected Japan's assertion that its invasion and occupation of Manchuria was an act of self-defence. Japan resigned in protest from the League of Nations in 1933. A regrettable period in Japan's history followed.

The outcome of the International Court of Justice case could have far-reaching effects.

If the court rules in Australia's favour, it will test the extent to which Japan is committed to multilateralism and international law. Australia would be rightly be concerned if an important partner were to treat the primary judicial instrument of the United Nations with such disregard.

If the court rules in Japan's favour, the Abbott government would come under closer domestic scrutiny. Sending an aircraft to the Antarctic to "monitor all parties", in breach of another election promise, will be interpreted as tacit complicity. The desire to satisfy an unhappy domestic constituency and the need to cultivate positive relations will once again come into direct competition.

It is only a matter of time before public policy on issues that affect the welfare of sentient beings catches up with public opinion. Australia will only be able to exercise the influence of a respected middle power, however, if a principled approach is consistently applied to all situations, not just to those in which our values are not compromised by commercial interest.

  • Andrew Hunter is chairman of the Australian Fabians.