TOKYO (AFP) — Australia and Japan agreed to disagree Thursday on a bitter feud over whaling as their foreign ministers tried to show that the countries' close relationship was otherwise intact.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith held talks in Japan after a visit to mutual ally the United States on his first foreign trip since his left-leaning government took office in December.
Smith's counterpart, Masahiko Komura, thanked him for his early visit to Tokyo.
"I would like to further enhance this relationship," Komura said.
But in closed-door talks and a working dinner, the two sides were said to disagree over Japan's controversial annual whaling expedition in the Antarctic Ocean.
Japan, which says whaling is part of its culture, kills some 1,000 of the giant mammals a year despite passionate opposition from Western countries led by Australia and vociferous protests from animal groups.
"The Australian government and people do not regard lethal research as necessary but fully understand Japan's position," Smith told Komura, as quoted by a Japanese official who attended the talks.
Japan uses a loophole in a 1986 global whaling moratorium that allows killing the animals for science.
"Japan's position is that this is research based on science and is a completely legal activity," Komura was quoted as telling Smith. "What's important is to handle this issue without getting emotional."
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has stepped up pressure on Japan by sending a customs ship to track the hunt. Whales are beloved by Australians, forming a multimillion-dollar whale-watching industry.
Environmentalists have also chased the whalers. In mid-January, two activists from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society hopped onto a harpoon ship, setting off a standoff resolved after the Australian customs ship picked them up.
Sea Shepherd said Thursday that its ship had returned to port in Melbourne as it was running out of fuel, allowing Japan to resume killing whales.
The Japanese official said Smith stressed to Komura that the activists had no link to the Australian government, a distinction the Japanese foreign minister said he understood.
"At this moment Australian police are investigating the case and will handle it properly," Smith was quoted as saying.
Rudd's Labor Party accused the previous conservative government of John Howard of failing to press for an end to whaling due to concern about business with Japan, Australia's top trading partner.
Under Howard, Japan agreed to start talks on a free-trade agreement which, if realised, would be the first between Asia's largest economy and a major agricultural exporter.
Howard last year signed a security pact with Japan -- officially pacifist Tokyo's first such deal other than its alliance with the United States. The three countries also held a first-of-a-kind trilateral summit last year.
Smith and Komura agreed to pursue the free-trade talks and hold another "two-plus-two" meeting of the countries' foreign and defence ministers, the Japanese official said.
Some Japanese officials had privately voiced concern about Rudd, a former diplomat with a fondness for China, which often has uneasy relations with Japan.
But Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has also worked to repair ties with China, which were strained for much of the past decade over disputes linked to World War II.
"Warmer ties between Japan and China are also good for Australia," Smith was quoted as telling Komura.
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