The nature of the long-term strategic relationship Australia is seeking to achieve with the sponsor nation behind each participant in the Competitive Evaluation Process (CEP) for the concept design of the Navy’s Future Submarine continues to be an evolving element of the Government’s ultimate assessment of preferred options for Project SEA 1000.
Originally, the CEP was structured as a three-way contest between two commercially-based competitors – DCNS of France and TKMS of Germany – against the Government of Japan and its favoured submarine builders, Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Detractors of the CEP have painted it as simply a ruse to put a better public face on what may ultimately end up as the selection of Japan to supply the Future Submarine fleet, even if for good strategic reasons.
The fact that Australian diplomats have been working for years behind the scenes to build our cultural, economic and security relationship with Japan – which in recent times has yielded dedicated regional defence and free trade agreements – has generally positioned Japan ahead of Germany and France for SEA 1000 should prime consideration be given to Australia’s long-term economic and security interests in North Asia, the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
While Australia has been busily progressing its security agenda in those areas to our north, and east and west, by engaging regional allies in military exchanges and joint exercises, we have also concluded free trade agreements with the United States, Japan, South Korea, China and Singapore. European Union (EU) interest has been virtually absent during this process, with even Trade Minister Robb (when speaking to the recent conclusion of the 12-country Trans Pacific Partnership) saying that a European trade deal was the “missing piece” in Australia’s approach to advancing its economic security.
The smell of big money can have an amazing attitudinal transforming effect, and with a $50 billion whole-of-life deal for Future Submarines now on the table involving two competitors from Europe, the EU behemoth has been stirred into action. Accordingly, and as part of a new ‘Trade for All’ EU Trade and Investment Strategy, Australia and New Zealand are to be offered freer trade arrangements, assuming the 28 partners of the EU all agree to support the initiative.
This will all take time to achieve, and submissions for the CEP close on November 30. As such, France is not waiting for the EU to catch up to SEA 1000’s critical need for intimate high-level government involvement and endorsement of the type of future submarine technology/design supply strategic relationship required to assure a successful CEP down-select. In short, it’s all about home governments underpinning confidence in the deal and, if necessary, pledging financial muscle should things not all go to plan in rolling out the project.
When addressing the National Press Club (NPC) in Canberra on Tuesday, French Ambassador to Australia, Christophe Lecourtier, spoke extensively about his government’s support for DCNS’s SEA 1000 CEP response by structuring in parallel “an ambitious strategic partnership” with Australia encompassing security arrangements with the United States, joint regional naval exercises with Australia, the maintenance of a good relationship with China, active joint programmes as members of the Pacific and Indian Ocean communities, and cooperation in the utilisation and preservation of Antarctic Territories.
The Ambassador went on to say he saw the opportunity of project SEA 1000 as empowering France and Australia to work together to secure the best technological solution for the new boats that in turn would ensure Australia achieved sovereignty in the operation of its future submarine fleet, in order to acquit its own national security priorities. Lecourtier next drew upon France’s established record of investment in local defence-industry and the successful transfer of many leading technologies to the Australian Defence Force.
Going back 25 years to Thales’ purchase of the former government-owned Australian Defence Industries (ADI), the Ambassador said many unique capabilities were now employed by Australia, including sonars for major Australian naval vessels. This “has proven our ability to work together” said the Ambassador, with the record set to continue after recent contract awards for Australia’s future air traffic management system, and the Army’s Hawkei ground mobility vehicles.
Guarantees underpinning any contract between the two states on submarines were also likely to drive further cooperation in high technology, naval systems, piracy, non-proliferation and humanitarian crisis response. All technology transfer arrangements, said the Ambassador, were to be embodied in a formal agreement with the French Government, while the highest quality and safety standards in Australian submarines would similarly benefit from France’s membership of the exclusive nuclear submarine operators club.
Following the claim by the Japanese Ambassador to Australia at the NPC in July to the penultimate ‘strategic relationship’ with Australia, Ambassador Lecourtier’s address has raised the profile of France’s commitment to funding security initiatives in the Indo-Pacific and Antarctic territories, as well as the merit of its broader economic activities as a discriminator in the SEA 1000 contest should all other technical matters end up being relatively equal.
More importantly, the strength of the French Government commitment to the project as outlined by Ambassador Lecourtier, essentially changes the nature of the CEP engagement. It now appears to be the governments of Japan and France that are respectively pitted against the privately-owned TKMS for the Future Submarine project.
Enquiries to the NPC have confirmed that no similar appearance by the German Ambassador before the Australian press is scheduled prior to the Christmas break.