Procuring a new fleet of submarines is a daunting task for any government. The capability requirements, technological challenges, project timelines, and costs involved all make submarine procurement a complex challenge. But, in Australia, procuring new submarines has become an unusually complicated endeavor. Australia’s Future Submarine Project — which will replace Australia’s existing Collins-class fleet of submarines — involves more than just technological, capability and budgetary considerations. Australia’s Future Submarines Project has become a key test of the Abbott government’s commitment to domestic manufacturing jobs in South Australia, and is the most tangible symbol of Australia’s deepening security relationship with Japan.
To make matters even more challenging, these latter two priorities compete with one another: any decision to import Japanese submarine technology or a wholesale Japanese submarine design reduces the likelihood that the submarines will be designed and constructed in South Australian shipyards.
The Abbott government’s efforts to pursue a submarine deal with Japan must be understood in the context of its view of Asia’s security order. The relationship with Japan is a bellwether of how the Australian government views the future of the Asia Pacific region, and particularly the challenges posed by China’s rise. The submarine negotiations have been a tangible way for the Abbott government to strengthen its security ties with Japan as a hedge against potential threats emanating from a more powerful China.
Over the course of 2014, Japanese and Australian leaders have used a series of high-level bilateral, trilateral and multilateral forums to laud their new military technology cooperation; to put forward carefully coordinated language about the Asia Pacific security order, maritime disputes and the rule of law; and to directly or indirectly criticize China’s behavior in the East and South China Seas.
The potential submarine deal also serves as an important window into Japanese thinking about Asia’s regional security order. To the Japanese government, a potential submarine deal with Australia represents much more than a simple commercial transaction. As research by Aurelia George Mulgan shows, Japanese sources believe that the submarine deal would signify to the Japanese government that Japan and Australia share the ‘same fate in terms of security’. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s persistent efforts to secure a submarine deal with Australia — in the face of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s messily announced ‘competitive evaluation process’ and suspicion within parts of the Japanese defense industry sector — is further testament to the significance he attaches to the Australia–Japan security relationship.
The Abbott government began pursuing submarine cooperation with Japan soon after coming to power in September 2013. On 7 December 2013, Australian Defense Minister David Johnston announced that the Australian government had asked Japan to consider sharing its advanced submarine propulsion technology with Australia. The December announcement followed shortly in the wake of a perceptible shift in Australia’s language on Japan. For instance, on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in October 2013, Abbott declared that ‘Japan is Australia’s best friend in Asia’. Later that month, in a major speech to the Kokoda Foundation, Johnston stated that‘ Australia and Japan, as allies of the United States, have mutually supportive roles to play in the security of the region’.
By the early months of 2014, the Abbott government’s stance on Japan — and its corresponding stance on Japanese submarines — had become even clearer. In February 2014, Australian Defense Materiel Organization officials travelled to Japan to pursue further submarine negotiations. But Australia’s negotiators were no longer only interested in Japanese propulsion technology. Rather, as the South Australian and Japanese press reported, Australian officials were also looking at the option of replacing the Collins-class submarines with an off-the-shelf purchase of complete Japanese Soryu–class submarines.
In the midst of all this, the Australian and Japanese governments began negotiating a bilateral framework that is designed to, among other things, permit Japan to share submarine technology with Australia. A series of high-level visits by Abbott, Johnston and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to Tokyo in April and June 2014 paved the way for a major bilateral agreement on the sharing of defense equipment and military technology. Still, by the end of 2014 there was little clarity on which submarine option the Abbott government would pursue.
German, Swedish and French exporters have continued to lobby the government for the right to export their own off-the-shelf or evolved designs, while the Japanese option still faces a number of hurdles. Are Japanese exporters willing to share advanced technology with Australia? Could US combat and weapons systems be placed on Japanese-designed submarines? And what role, if any, would South Australian industry play in designing, constructing or assembling the submarines?
All this poses two challenges for the Abbott government. First, Australia’s submarine procurement process is now an unusually complicated one. This complexity has been evident in recent Australian Senate Estimates hearings, where senators have been painstakingly picking through the decision-making processes of the last 18 months. They are seeking to determine what deals, if any, have already been made with Japan, why certain European submarine exporters have already been ruled out of the ‘competitive evaluation process’, and whether equal treatment is being given to all those involved in the process. Australia’s Future Submarines Project is a mess and the Abbott government has made an already daunting procurement process even more arcane.
Second, beyond the submarines decision is the bigger question of whether a closer security relationship with Japan is the right strategic choice for Australia. The Abbott government is not the first Australian government to pursue closer security ties with Japan. But the difference now is that Australia faces a much more contested relationship between Asia’s two great powers — China and Japan.
While Australia shares a number of strategic interests with Japan, it is by no means clear that our interests overlap as closely as Abbott and Abe evidently believe. Recent polling suggests that Australians would not support military involvement in a conflict between Japan and China in the East China Sea, even if the US expressly requested it.
Together, Abbott and Abe have staked enormous political capital on getting a submarines deal as a key plank in their security relationship. Whether this is the right capability decision for Australia, and whether Abbott can square this with his domestic political critics, remains to be seen.
Amy King is a Lecturer in the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre at The Australian National University.
This article first appeared at the East Asia Forum. Click here to go to the original.