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Helen Clark is not afraid to snap at the hand that helps feed her nation.

A year after an exchange of terse statements with Tokyo over its whaling program, the New Zealand prime minister is visiting Japan with a high-level trade delegation to strengthen business ties between the two countries.

Although she intends to raise the issue of a South Pacific whale sanctuary in talks with Japanese officials, Clark is also in Japan no doubt to ensure that the brief but intense diplomatic dispute in January 2000 has not hurt bilateral relations.

Clark ignited the war of words when she threw her — and her fellow New Zealanders’ — support behind Greenpeace’s protest against Japan’s hunting of whales in Antarctic waters. A dangerous showdown earlier between Greenpeace protesters and a Japanese whaling vessel in the Southern Ocean inspired her move.

Tokuichiro Tamazawa, then Japanese fisheries minister, responded with a rare open protest letter in which he doubted the “prudence” of a prime minister of a country who publicly expresses support for Greenpeace International, a body that favors “violent action.”

A rap on the knuckles, for sure, from Wellington’s third-most important trading partner. But the next day, Clark chided the minister, telling a news conference that Tamazawa should “stick to the issues and get the facts right.”

Recent history shows that the New Zealand government, especially with Clark’s own Labor Party at the helm, has not shied away from such David and Goliath-like confrontations.

The country, whose tiny economy relies on foreign investment and trade, hardly registers on the political radar of most nations outside the South Pacific. Consequently, New Zealand seems to relish the brushes with more powerful countries despite the potential for damage to bilateral relationships.

The feisty nation arguably made its first proper international splash in 1984 when newly elected Labor Prime Minister David Lange honored an election promise and declared New Zealand nuclear-free.

The action prevented nuclear-powered vessels and those carrying nuclear weapons from entering New Zealand’s ports. It also raised Washington’s ire and planted the seed for the dissolution of the triparty ANZUS security alliance with the United States and Australia.

The following year, relations with France were severely strained when two French intelligence agents blew up and sank the Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbor, killing a Greenpeace photographer on board. The ship had been due to lead a flotilla to French Polynesia to protest French nuclear bomb tests on Moruroa Atoll.

Wellington broke off diplomatic relations with Paris over the incident, which were not resumed until after France ended its nuclear testing 10 years later.

The huge influx of money from public donations in the wake of the Rainbow Warrior bombing led to Greenpeace’s rapid growth and enabled the group to open an office in Japan.

The lingering bond New Zealanders feel with Greenpeace over the bombing in their own waters meant that domestically there was minimal political risk for Clark in aligning her center-left government with the organization.

Since the spat with Japan, Wellington has not let up on Tokyo over its whaling program. The New Zealand government wants to see the end of whaling in any form and does not accept Japan’s contention that its whaling is for scientific research.

“It is well-known that meat from the whales killed during these ‘scientific’ expeditions finishes up at Japanese dinner tables,” said Clark last July. “That’s what appalls the people of New Zealand and like-minded nations who have rallied to conserve these great mammals.”

In January, Japan felt compelled to send a letter to the International Whaling Commission protesting a proposal by New Zealand and Britain to require the IWC to monitor Japan’s whale meat market.

It is on the wave of such stern exchanges — including the periodic condemnation of Japan for allowing ships carrying recycled nuclear fuel to pass through the Tasman Sea separating New Zealand and Australia — that Clark has washed up here to press for interest in a bilateral free-trade agreement.

Happily for Clark, whether Tokyo gives such a pact due consideration or not is unlikely to be affected by Wellington’s whaling stance. Japan, it seems, is also eager to ensure that ties are not damaged.

“I believe such a clear indication of each other’s position is not detrimental for maintenance and development of bilateral relations in future years,” wrote Fisheries Minister Tamazawa before signing off on the protest letter.

Still, despite the leeway she gets from Tokyo, Clark may be relieved that after trading jibes with Tamazawa across an ocean, she won’t have to meet him face to face during her six-day visit — at least not as one nation’s representative to another. The veteran LDP member lost his seat in the last Diet election.

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