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Southern Ocean Whaling Conflict Implications

The Geopolitical Implications Of The Southern Ocean Whaling Conflict

Paul G. Buchanan

Skirmishes between anti-whaling activists and the Japanese whaling fleet conducting purported scientific culling of minke and finback whales in the Southern Ocean nature sanctuary have led to calls for military intervention on both sides. The Japanese Whaling Commission has asked that warships from Canada and the Netherlands, home ports of the Greenpeace and Sea Shepard anti-whaling boats, be sent to the southern ocean to reign in their wayward vessels, and would like to see Japanese Maritime Patrol aircraft (mostly P3s like the RNZAF Orions, but with better telemetry and avionics) patrol the conflict zone. These planes are designed for anti-submarine as well as surface patrol operations, so they are armed with depth charges and torpedoes. This technically makes them military aircraft, especially if rationales of self-defence are the justification for the deployment. Since P3s do not have the range to travel to and from the Southern Ocean and Japan, a refuelling station will be needed along the way. There are many possible sites.

Greenpeace and the Sea Shepard Society comprise the anti-whaling flotilla. Incessantly dogging the whaling fleet and linked directly to global media outlets, they provide vivid coverage, commentary and uncompromising opposition to the commercial or scientific culling of all whales. They accuse the whalers of repeated violations of the scientific research quota both in terms of species and numbers of whales killed, and claim that it is only their presence that prevents more egregious violations from happening. The Japanese public relations response consists of lame (“Greenpeace deceives you,” “scientific research”) signs attached to their processing boats and official accusations that anti-whaling activists are among other things “dangerous vegans” and “circus performers.”

Whether consciously or not both sides are practicing a variant of the “moderate-militant” bargaining strategy. The original version of the moderate-militant strategy is simple. Be it in collective wage bargaining or party coalition talks, competing groups making militant demands—and often act outrageously—in order to create space for the acceptance of more moderate demands. Labour unions demand wage increases beyond profitability levels, business threatens lay-offs, lock out and shut downs. Yet both seek compromise. North Korea and Iran play nuclear brinkmanship, but their real strategic goals likely fall short of nuclear war. The idea is to stake out an impossible claim, show the ability to back it up with action, and then negotiate inwards towards a mutually achievable objective with an opponent.

The situation of the whalers and anti-whalers is slightly different. Both are trying to sway the court of world opinion, but the internal logic rest on how far each side is prepared to go in pursuit of its objectives. Thus, the whalers agreed to halt commercial activities in the whale sanctuary only after agreement was reached on the so-called scientific harvest of selected whale species for “research.” Had no such agreement been reached, Japan threatened to resume commercial whaling in the preserve (as its militant option). For its part, Sea Shepard plays the role of “crazy” militant to Greenpeace’s non-violent protests, thereby creating space in which Greenpeace’s actions appear more reasonable to the general public. What is different is that both sides see the situation as a zero sum game: the anti-whaling coalition wants all commercial and scientific whaling banned, with no compromise possible. They have shown the will and ability to drive that point home. For its part Japan wants to use its scientific research programme to open the door to (limited) commercial whaling once it has proved that whale stocks in the sanctuary are sustainable with restricted seasonal hunting. It wants Greenpeace and Sea Shepard barred from interfering with its operations.

Greenpeace started the most recent physical confrontation by sending inflatable boats to obstruct the scientific whale hunt and cull of 900 minkes and 50 finned whales. The whalers responded with high-pressure water hoses directed from distance at the inflatable boat crews, and 3 meter staving poles used against boats and crew once they were within reach of whaling ships (which caused several injuries to inflatable crew members). Greenpeace claims that another tactic used by the whalers is to fire harpoons at close range above the heads of the inflatable boat crews. In response, its two mother ships, the Artic Sunrise and Esperanza, have closed on the whalers, resulting in at least one collision.

The Farley Mowat, a Sea Shepard vessel, has adopted a more militant approach. Seeing itself as a predator on whalers, it has harassed, then deliberately rammed a whaler supply ship in order crease its hull with an improvised “can cutter” device. The can cutter is a sharpened metal projection from the bow of the Farley Mowat that is vertically located about mid-hull on a typical Japanese factory ship or tanker. It has superficial cutting depth, but its threat is implicit. Deployed higher or lower, strengthened or lengthened, the can cutter has potentially lethal applications. The whalers have responded to this upped ante by calling for the foreign warships and Japanese government protection in the form of the Maritime Patrol. This militarises the conflict.

Greenpeace has urged the Australian government to deny landing rights if such eventuality became fact, and New Zealand (in spite of its concern about the potentially detrimental effect it would have on Japanese-New Zealand trade), would have to do the same for domestic political purposes, if not principle. Yet there are other island nations in the South Pacific that may be less inclined to deny the Japanese transit rights, especially if there is some benefit to be obtained by the deal. Neither the Canadians nor Dutch appear too keen to intervene in the matter, and do not have the military resources to do so in any event.

Physically closest to the action, the New Zealand government has sent Orions to survey the whaling fleet. It has refused to send a frigate in order to impose its own military presence on the belligerents. It claims that it does not have a dog in this fight. This may be due to the fact that, although opposed to whaling, New Zealand has no jurisdiction in the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary and the dispute is between private parties. It could also be due to the fact that with very limited resources and commitments to international maritime patrol duties elsewhere, the RNZN simply is incapable of projecting force in the Southern Ocean. Whatever the specific reason (or combination), the New Zealand government is using legal technicalities to justify its military inaction. Instead, it prefers to work through the tried and true diplomatic channels that produced this standoff on the high seas.

The New Zealand response is problematic for several reasons. Like it or not, this increasingly violent dispute is a political issue foremost, and governments are already involved. Not only is the scientific whaling project funded in part by the Japanese government, and the New Zealand government wholly opposed to it. The call for maritime patrol assets is a deliberate appeal for Japanese military intervention. To allow that to occur would set an unpleasant precedent that would erode New Zealand’s international reputation, that of its defence forces, and its already limited physical sovereignty. It would have implications for the exploitation of Antarctica. It is therefore incumbent, as a matter of principle, that New Zealand oppose the deployment of any Japanese military forces in defence of its whalers, regardless of adverse trade consequences and the Japanese right under international law to use military force in defence of economic and scientific interests at sea.

Another, equally important reason is that, the way things are going, the confrontation between the whalers and environmentalists is headed towards a possible human tragedy (above and beyond the tragedy of the whales). With physical confrontations escalating, the potential for loss of life at sea has dramatically increased. For no other reason than its ability to conduct search and rescue operations if needed, the RNZN would be wise to station an vessel capable of serving as a platform for such operations in the vicinity of the whaling fleet. The whalers are easy to find and the RNZN need not intervene in the dispute. All it has to do is shadow and be in close proximity in the event things go south and an unfortunate incident occurs. Being on station in the area will also allow it to monitor the activities of both whalers and anti-whalers for signs of illegality under the laws of the sea and conventions regarding scientific whaling. That may not guarantee the safety of potential human victims, but it would show determination to use military assets for humanitarian purposes and in upholding international law regardless of the specifics of the dispute.

Deploying air and naval assets to monitor events and provide search and rescue cover whilst the whaling confrontation is ongoing, New Zealand would enhance its international reputation as a fair player. As it is, pressure is mounting on the Howard government to consider its own military options in this affair, and Australia certainly has the military assets to project force in the whale sanctuary. It may be reluctant to do so, but if the confrontation turns to violence and the Japanese deploy military assets southward, it will be compelled to do so in the absence of a New Zealand response. That will invite more suggestion that New Zealand, rather than taking the adsobvious lead on the issue of a local military intervention as a matter of principle, once again shirked its neighbourly and international obligations. Absent more decisive action than diplomatic protests, New Zealand loses in international stature and reputation. It is seen as a country of political and diplomatic talkers, not doers, incapable of forcefully reacting to contentious issues within in its own sphere of (geographic and diplomatic) interest. Among the most vocal anti-whaling nations, it will have been shown to be a paper tiger of the seas, unwilling or incapable of peacefully projecting force of its own volition, for its own self-defined reasons, in defence of a common good. Perhaps in the end necessities of trade with large whaling nations overwhelm matters of conscience for this small island state, and it has a legal foundation to justify its non-response, but in terms of geopolitical realities, military inaction in the whaling dispute will invite more challenges to matters of vital foreign policy interest.

If the boats capable of serving as search and rescue and monitoring platforms are in dry dock, being retrofitted, otherwise out of commission or deployed for the duration of the scientific whaling season out of reach of the whale sanctuary, the point is moot. If the government has the assets but not the inclination to deploy them, New Zealand’s political will is in question. In either instance it will take especially skilful—and heretofore unseen--diplomacy to prevent the whaling conflict from becoming one in which the blood in the water comes from humans as well as whales.


Paul G. Buchanan’s lectures in comparative politics and security affairs at the University of Auckland. His latest book, With Distance Comes Perspective, was published last year by DPG Press, Auckland.

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