CANBERRA Australia's government on Friday announced plans for legal action against Japan to stop Southern Ocean scientific whaling, but said it did not expect retaliation from its second-biggest trading partner.
"The Australian government has not taken this decision lightly," Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said after announcing legal papers would be lodged in the International Court of Justice in The Hague next week.
"We have been patient and committed in our efforts to find a diplomatic resolution to this issue. We have engaged in intensive discussions in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and bilaterally with Japan," Smith said.
Whaling has been a thorny issue between the two trading partners, though both governments in the past have vowed not to let it affect ties, including growing military and security cooperation.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose popularity is slipping ahead of elections later this year, in February set Japan a November deadline to halt whaling, which his Labor government has now pre-empted.
Environmentalists have accused Rudd of backpedaling on threats of an International Court of Justice whaling challenge to avoid damaging Australia's $58 billion trade ties with Japan, and so-far slow progress on a free trade deal.
"Both Australia and Japan have agreed that, whatever our differences on whaling, this issue should not be allowed to jeopardize the strength and the growth of our bilateral relationship," Smith said.
Some legal experts say the cull breaches international laws such as the Antarctic Treaty System. A court challenge would lead to so-called provisional orders for Japan to immediately halt whaling ahead of a full hearing.
Commercial whaling was banned under a 1986 moratorium, but Japan still culls whales for what it says is research.
Smith said Australia would remain closely engaged in the IWC and continue to work to stop whaling in the lead-up to the June IWC meeting in Morocco, where he admitted chances of an international agreement were "slim."
Under a compromise deal to be debated by the 88-nation IWC, Japan, Norway and Iceland could be allowed to kill a limited number of whales for the first time in 24 years under a proposal criticized by whaling nations and opponents of the hunts.
The plan would force the trio to cut their quotas for 10 years while the IWC worked out a long-term solution by 2020.
(Editing by Ed Davies and Sugita Katyal)