Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott survived a leadership challenge on Monday, but his last-minute pledge to allow an open tender on the construction of new submarines poses a challenge to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who must weigh the political risks of becoming more public about his ambition to tap the global defense market, experts say.
Political analysts agree if the contract is awarded elsewhere, there will be little damage overall to Australia-Japan relations, with plenty of opportunities for the two allies to engage in military ties. But Abbott’s latest promise could scare Tokyo away from the now high-profile subs sale just as Abe gears up to persuade a weary public of the need for changes to the nation’s security laws and Constitution.
The Australian government’s earlier decision to forgo construction of the subs in the state of South Australia had been considered a broken election promise, prompting outrage and protests in the state. The backlash was worsened by then-Defense Minister David Johnston saying he would not trust the government-owned Australian Submarine Corp. “to build a canoe.”
Several South Australian Liberal Party lawmakers eventually pressured the government to keep the submarines’ construction in the country, after the party suffered in polls partly due to voter backlash over the broken promise.
In the lead-up to the leadership challenge, the South Australian Liberal lawmakers said their support for Abbott was conditional on the submarines being built in their state, according to various Australian media outlets, including the Guardian.
Abbott himself reportedly called state Liberal Sen. Sean Edwards to confirm an open tender would be held for the subs.
Japanese defense officials met late last week to discuss the implications of the leadership challenge on the ¥3.5 trillion sale, The Weekend Australian reported Saturday. But it remains unclear whether they will look to maintain the sales pitch.
Fielding questions after the leadership vote, Abbott was asked by a reporter if there was a “secret deal” between him and Abe for the submarines to be constructed in Japan. Abbott denied the allegation, saying “there will be an international partner” and that the Australian government was not ruling out alternative bids from France, Sweden and Germany.
Corey Wallace, an expert on Japanese politics from New Zealand’s University of Auckland, said when Japan lifted its nearly 50-year ban on weapons exports in April 2014, its main reason was to gain access to new technologies through joint development of military parts and equipment with international partners.
While the move to open bidding for the subs doesn’t rule Japan out from making the sale, Wallace said “an open tender would require significant public relations activity on the part of Japanese companies and quite possibly the government.
“A high-profile arms export competition is probably something that will raise the image of Japan becoming a global military power, which could be unwelcome as the Abe government tries to pass controversial security legislation,” Wallace added.
In the current Diet session lasting through June, the government is planning to introduce more than 10 bills to revise the Self-Defense Forces Law and others in line with last year’s Cabinet contentious decision on collective self-defense. That decision would allow Japan to come to the aid of an ally under attack.
Wallace also said that the tender could “touch upon some sensitivities that the Japanese government would rather avoid.”
Some of those “sensitivities” relate to Abe’s desire to push for a national referendum on revising the nation’s war-renouncing Constitution, Wallace said. The Abe government, he added, may be unwilling to waste political capital on pursuing the sale while working to convince voters on the merits of collective self-defense.
Carolyn Stevens, a professor of Japanese studies at Australia’s Monash University, agreed, adding the central government would need some sway with the public as it pushes a referendum on revising Article 9 of the Constitution.
Ultimately, Abe’s pursuit of such constitutional revisions could leave him “increasingly alienated from the (Japanese) public,” she said, putting his political career at risk.
According to Wallace, any sub deal would be concluded around the same time as the constitutional changes.
“The Australian submarine issue will probably need to be wrapped up by the end of this year,” Wallace said. “And so an open tender process will likely take place around the time that Abe looks to push forward on the CSD (collective self-defense) legislation.”
However, a Japanese government source involved in the sub sale told Reuters on Monday that the government “can’t really be seen to be going out and actively pursuing a deal.”
With Abbott retaining his leadership and possibly keeping the submarines in Australia to maintain the support of his colleagues, Wallace said there will still be “many other areas for increased military cooperation that the two nations could pursue even if a submarine deal doesn’t go through.
“I don’t think the submarine deal falling through would be a significant disaster for Japan or for the Australia-Japan relationship,” he said.
Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo, agreed.
“(The) Abe government is still pretty much intent on pursuing its ‘proactive’ policy toward military ‘normalization’ of Japan, and particularly since Mr. Abbott managed to keep his job, it is likely to continue in the direction of the submarine sale,” he said.
On Tuesday morning, a news conference from Australia’s Defense Minister Kevin Andrews cast further doubt on whether the subs would be built in Australia, saying there would be a “competitive evaluation process.” But he refused to elaborate on how this would be different from an open tender.
Following Monday’s leadership vote, Abbott accused opposition Labor Leader Bill Shorten during parliamentary question time of “cheap racist ranting against the people of Japan” after Shorten criticized the government for not keeping jobs in Australia. That suggests Abbott may continue to pursue the Japanese option after all.
As for ties between Abbott and Abe, who have enjoyed a close relationship, any damage from the leadership vote is likely to be “rather limited,” Nakano said.
While Australian media continue to speculate on Abbott’s ultimate fate, Stevens and Nakano concur Japan-Australia ties will suffer little. Stevens argued the potential alternative leader, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, could “match” Abbott’s good standing in Abe’s view.
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