How has it come to this? Australia has strained relationships with, in modern parlance, two of its “besties” in Asia, India and Japan. Both are democracies with independent judiciaries. Both are important trading partners. And both are friends which share common security interests.

The answer turns on Labor’s view that it has to make some concessions to the minority left faction within the ALP and to the Greens. The former to keep the party as united as possible; the latter to maximise the flow of preferences from the Greens to Labor.

It is a long time since the left identified with the working classes – or what would be termed today working families on modest wages. These days the ALP’s Left faction, along with the Greens, represent the interests of well-off professionals – many of whom live in the inner city and many of whom enjoy tenured employment.

The interests of the left are easily identifiable. They invariably involve anything but what were once referred to as “bread and butter” issues. The inner-city radical middle class has moved beyond bread and butter – and even focaccia and caviar – to such issues as international and national security, nuclear power and the environment.

Successful Labor governments are invariably social democratic rather than left. This is true of the governments headed by John Curtin, Ben Chifley, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. And it is true today of Kevin Rudd. The Rudd government has given a high priority to the Australia-American alliance and has increased the defence commitment to Afghanistan. Australia still has 80 ADF personnel in Iraq under Operation Kruger which provides security support for the Australian diplomatic mission there.

Clearly the Prime Minister has not given any concessions to the left on foreign policy. The same can be said for national security, where Rudd has not watered down the anti-terrorism legislation introduced by John Howard with Labor’s support.

However, some concessions have been made to the left on nuclear and environmental issues. The left consented to the abolition of Labor’s no-new-uranium-mines policy. But it insists Australia exports uranium only to nations which have signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – which excludes India.

The US and Canada have found ways of getting around this problem – but not Australia. This has led to considerable resentment in New Delhi. The influential Shashi Tharoor, now a member of the Indian government, publicly condemned Rudd’s policy during a visit to Australia in 2008. Senior members of the Indian government are even more outspoken in private.

And now the long-standing tension between Australia and Japan over whaling has escalated. The Prime Minister used his Friday gig on Channel Seven’s Sunrise to say if Australia does not get a diplomatic agreement with Japan “we’ll be going to the International Court of Justice”.

Rudd’s announcement, in response to a phone-in question, occurred on the eve of the Japanese Foreign Minister’s visit to Sydney and Perth at the weekend. Katsuya Okada is the first member of the new Japanese government to visit Australia. To say the least, the announcement was untimely.

At a brief media conference in Perth, the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, conceded his discussions with his Japanese counterpart and been “full and frank” – which is diplomat-speak for difficult. For his part, Okada described Australia’s decision as “unfortunate”. Japan’s preference is for continuing bilateral discussions or negotiations with the International Whaling Commission.

Smith made it clear it was only “in the last week or so” that the Rudd government decided to pursue a proposal before the IWC to see whaling in the Great Northern Ocean phased out over a reasonable period. He added that if this failed, Australia would take the matter to the International Court of Justice. The timing coincided with increasing attacks from the Tony Abbott-led opposition that Rudd leads a do-nothing government along with the Greens’ familiar mantra that Labor has sold out on the environment.

Shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Rudd took the brave and honourable step of criticising China’s administration of human rights in Tibet. The message was all the more telling for having been spoken in Beijing in Mandarin. However, since then, Australia has worked hard at stabilising the relationship with China – despite the continued detention of the Australian mining executive Stern Hu on grounds which are anything but clear.

The legal academic Don Rothwell has been prominent in advising successive Australian governments to take Japan to the International Court of Justice over whaling. This is the same Rothwell who, in an interview on The World Today last August, made the extraordinary suggestion that Hu might well be under investigation in Australia for crimes against Australian law. He provided no evidence in support of his assertion which should never have been made.

There is something unsatisfactory about Australia going quiet about undemocratic China while threatening to pick a legal fight with Japan and irritating India.

The opposition has indicated a willingness, if elected, to sell uranium to India. But it seems divided on Japan. Abbott has said it would be unwise for Australia “to needlessly antagonise our most important trading partner, a fellow democracy and an ally”. The position of some senior colleagues remains unclear and the frontbencher Greg Hunt is known to favour international legal action.

The truth is the inner-city left will never vote for the Coalition. Moreover, if the Coalition does not preference the Greens, they can never win a federal seat. There is no compelling reason why Labor or the Coalition should allow Australia’s relationships with India and Japan to be influenced by the left.