With Australia’s release of its defense white paper last week, the race to build the country’s next generation of submarines enters the home stretch — and some experts say the Japanese bid appears to hold an insurmountable lead.
“The DWP (Defense White Paper) strongly stresses the importance of further strengthening U.S.-Japanese defense relations and is also quite vocal about China’s challenge to the rules-based order in maritime Asia,” Ben Schreer, a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, said.
“In my view, it’s highly likely that the Turnbull government will choose the Japanese design for strategic and technological reasons, and the DWP has added weight to this,” he said, referring to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
The white paper says the country’s submarine force will be increased from six to 12 “regionally superior submarines with a high degree of interoperability with the United States.”
Requirements include the submarines having “a range and endurance similar” to the Collins class of vessels that the Royal Australian Navy currently operates, as well as “sensor performance and stealth characteristics superior” to its current subs.
Experts note that Japan’s diesel and electric-powered Soryu subs either meet or could be specially designed to meet most of these requirements. A decision is expected sometime this year.
“First and foremost, we’ve made a big strategic commitment to Japan based on this view of where the region is heading,” said Nick Bisley, a professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. “There is bipartisan support … both sides think this is a really good idea. … That plus the operational side — the Japanese submarine is most similar to ours — will tilt the balance very heavily in their favor.
“And the Japanese are also saying they are now open to the construction process in Australia, so that the government will be able to present a package that says ‘we’ve got jobs, we’ve got something we want, and we’ve got this friend in Japan.’ Together, I think that makes it overwhelmingly the choice that will be made.”
Japan has said it is willing to build at least some of the submarines in Australia, a key economic factor that until recently Tokyo had been apparently unwilling to commit to. Tokyo has also reassured Canberra that if it wins the sub bid Japan will also share with Australia its naval crown jewels — its most secret stealth technology.
While France and Germany are also participating in the so-called Competitive Evaluation Process to build the subs, Japan has long been thought of as the front-runner. Prior to the implementation of a more transparent bidding process, the Japanese bid was widely expected to be a lock under the administration of Tony Abbott, the former Australian leader who had close ties to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
But more than the technical aspects, Canberra’s strategic goals could prove key as Japan seeks to outflank the French and German bids for Australia’s largest-ever defense procurement offer, worth an estimated 50 billion Australian dollars ($36 billion).
Australia’s new defense paper lauds Japan as “a major power in North Asia” and “an important contributor to regional and global security.” It goes on to say that Canberra “welcomes the prospect of Japan playing a larger role in international security and will continue to deepen and broaden” its growing security cooperation with Tokyo.
During a visit to Tokyo last month, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said her country’s relationship with Japan is at an “all-time high,” and acknowledged that the Japanese side has “emphasized the strategic importance” of the submarine bid.
The push to cement closer defense ties began in 2007, during Abe’s first administration, with the signing of the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. This was upgraded in 2014, under Abe’s current administration, to a “special strategic” partnership. That same year, Abe’s Cabinet approved new rules on the export of arms, ending a nearly five-decade-long self-imposed ban.
Now, much of the strategic debate in Australia is focused on China and how such a deal will build on Canberra’s “quasi-alliance” with Tokyo. A winning bid by Japan will likely see the two nations working hand in hand over at least the next 30 years, as the subs are built and maintained.
Sam Bateman, a former Australian naval commodore and adviser at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said a deal with Japan “would not be well received in China.”
“It would be seen in Beijing as Australian participation in the U.S.-Japan effort to contain China,” Bateman said, adding that such “cooperation is actively promoted by both Tokyo and Washington as part of balancing an ascendent China.”
But with any Japan sub deal, China would likely be less worried about the submarines themselves and more concerned about the precedent set by such an agreement.
“China, ultimately, doesn’t really care about the submarines — their number and function is of little concern,” said Bisley. “What it doesn’t like is the political connection between Japan and Australia and of course the U.S., which they perceive to be intended to constrain China.”
A European deal, on the other hand, would be a transaction less encumbered by geopolitical considerations, as well as one that offers Canberra more strategic independence, analysts say.
“Although the European options would provide longer-term strategic flexibility, it seems likely that the final decision will go the way of the Japanese,” Bateman said, adding that Australia will face difficulties sustaining the subs if not acting in concert with Japan.
“It is a matter of grand strategy to determine whether that is acceptable,” Bateman added.
Macquarie University’s Schreer said that picking Japan for the deal would signal that Australia has an interest in East Asian stability and that it would be more likely to side with Tokyo in the event of a conflict.
“And it would signal that Australia is an independent nation which makes choices on its vital defense technologies based on its national interests and not based on Chinese interference,” he added.
The Competitive Evaluation Process itself is unlikely to factor in strategic aspects in its recommendation. It is instead expected to focus on technical merits and value.
“If the strategic relationship angle is to play a role, that will most likely happen at the government level, when they weigh the results communicated by the Defense Ministry,” said Andrew Davies, director of research at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in the capital, Canberra.
“There is a precedent for that — the government of (former Prime Minister John) Howard chose to override the department’s recommendation for the Collins combat system in order to select an American one, on the basis of greater alliance value.”
Critics of the Japanese bid say picking the Soryu class could see Australia pulled into an unwanted fight, most likely in the disputed waters of the East or South China Seas.
The East China Sea is home to the uninhabited, Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China. Australia, the U.S. and Japan have all condemned China’s November 2013 declaration of an air defense identification zone over those waters, and for now the conflict there has somewhat died down.
The South China Sea, where several nations — Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia among others — have overlapping territorial claims, is a different case altogether.
In those waters, most of which are claimed by Beijing, there has been a marked ramping up of tensions in the wake of China’s massive dredging program to create artificial islands. Some of those man-made islands are now home to military-grade airfields as well as powerful weapons and radar systems.
These moves, too, have been roundly condemned by Canberra, Tokyo and Washington, which has conducted what it calls freedom of navigation operations near the disputed islands. Fears of an accidental clash between China and other claimants in the South China Sea have proliferated as tensions have grown fraught.
Bisley, however, said the argument that by picking a Japanese sub, Canberra could be dragged into a battle it may not want to fight, is a nonstarter. He said Australia’s strategy in the region has long been to maintain the status quo, which has seen the United States as the dominant military power.
“Those who argue that the J-option will tie Australia into a quasi-alliance with Japan are wrong” Bisley said. “In this case, the technological link will follow a strategic choice that has long been made.
“The submarine decision will flow from Australia having committed itself to an extremely close long-term strategic relationship with Japan — not the other way around.”