OSAKA – When Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visits Tokyo Friday, the top item on the agenda is expected to be reaching an agreement with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on closer defense cooperation, particularly more joint military exercises between the two nations.
But behind Turnbull’s visit to Japan, the first since he replaced Tony Abbott, who was particularly close to Abe, in September, is the question of whether Japan will be chosen to develop Australia’s next-generation submarines, and what impact that decision could have on overall bilateral relations.
Just over two years ago, Abbott made headlines when he declared that Japan was Australia’s closest friend in Asia, delighting Tokyo but creating concerns in Beijing and among those in Australia seeking to balance the country’s relationship with China and Japan.
Agreements for a closer defense cooperation between Australia and Japan, as well as the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement, credited by many in Canberra and Tokyo for giving impetus toward the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks in October, also took place under Abbott’s administration.
Now, with Turnbull in charge, security experts in Australia say there could be some changes, even though his visit to Tokyo is expected to produce an agreement.
“I think that, yes, Abe and Turnbull will conclude an agreement, as this form of bilateral cooperation (on joint military exercises) has been growing steadily,” said Malcolm Cook, a nonresident fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
“Greater training opportunities for the Japan Air Self-Defense Force in Australia’s Northern Territory might be likely. Both militaries are boosting their amphibious capabilities, so that might be another area where they will look to do more together.”
Turnbull is seen in some quarters as more “pro-China” than Abbott, and this could place some restraints on the kind of further cooperation Tokyo, or its Washington ally, hopes to see from Australia.
“Abbott was very clearly pro-Japan and less sensitive about what China thinks. Turnbull has much closer business-sector links (which benefits from business with China) and appears more tolerant of the Chinese government’s aggressive posture on its territorial claims,” said Michael Heazle, associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute in Brisbane, Queensland.
Heazle said that obstacles to closer military cooperation may appear under Turnbull where China is directly involved, such as providing material support for U.S. operations in the South China Sea.
Noting that there is already defense cooperation between Australia and China, Cook said Canberra is likely to try to maintain a balance among its Asian allies.
“The Australian navy recently had another live-fire exercise with the Chinese, and Chinese military officials are to be embedded in the Australian defense forces. These are likely signs of Australia seeking closer ties, including security ties, with the U.S., Japan, China, India and South Korea at the same time,” Cook said.
As for cooperation on submarines, Japan is hoping that Australia will choose its bid to build possibly somewhere between eight and 12 submarines over those from consortia in Germany and France. Japan’s plan includes providing a modified version of its Soryu-class sub, which is manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries.
However, Australia’s domestic politics, especially how many Australian jobs will be provided, is likely to decide which of the three bids is chosen next year.
“As the submarine issue helped bring Abbott down, Turnbull has to tread carefully. The Abbott government was very unpopular in South Australia, home of the Australian Submarine Corporation, after the then defense minister (under Abbott) said local workers ‘couldn’t be trusted to make a canoe’ and that he preferred Japan as a manufacturer,” said Tim Harcourt, J.W. Nevile Fellow in economics at the UNSW (University of New South Wales) Australia Business School in Sydney.
Cook added that the political pressure is on Turnbull to choose the submarine deal that offers the greatest share of the work to be done in Adelaide, the South Australian capital.
“Up to six seats in South Australia held by (Turnbull’s) Liberal Party could be vulnerable to this decision,” he said.
Therefore, because of the political sensitivity, and the fact that the bids are still under review, little more than a perfunctory statement is likely to come out of this week’s meeting.
“Turnbull’s response on the sub deal, publicly anyway, will be that the tenders have been submitted, the selection process is underway, the process should run its course, and that Australia will purchase the subs that best fit Australia’s needs,” said Heazle.