One must seriously question the logic of some commentators in jumping to link the demise of Tony Abbott as Australian Prime Minister with Japan’s Soryu-class submarine being rocketed to the bottom of the list of preferred tenderers for the $50 billion Future Submarine project.
More disruptive to the prospects for success of the deal allegedly made with Tony Abbott would be the demise of Japanese Prime Minister Abe, who – despite opposition to his campaign to broaden Japan’s constitutional and legislative instruments to allow a broader range of military activities beyond the strictures applied to the Japanese Self Defence Force after World War II – succeeded last month in transiting a package of security-related bills through the upper house of the Diet.
The new laws will allow Japanese forces to undertake an, albeit constrained form of the right to “collective self-defence”, including helping an ally during a military contingency, even if Japan itself is not directly under attack. Combined with recent agreements with the United States that work to redefine and broaden their military relationship, the overall direction sees Japan progressively making its way to becoming a more prominent partner for underpinning collective security in the Asia-Pacific region.
This is of major significance to Australia, given all signs point to the progressive concentration of global economic growth in the broader Indo-Pacific region over the next 30 years. Accordingly, it is anticipated that the new Defence White Paper will argue our long-term security relationship with the United States (subsequent to its renewed ‘re-balance’ commitment to remain engaged in the region), will see Australia best advancing its long-term economic and security interests by enmeshing itself with regional allies and trading partners whose economies are growing, and who willing to support major investments in national security and associated defence-industry infrastructure.
So rather than the endurance of Tony Abbott, more critical to the success of the Japanese bid is in fact the continuity of Julie Bishop as Minister for Foreign Affairs, for it is under the umbrella of increasingly more sophisticated 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministerial meetings that key agreements have been concluded with Japan which will substantively advance economic, cultural and national security relationships between the two nations.
Further underpinning these agreements and understandings is each nation’s own economic and security relationship with the United States. There is nothing of its kind – in terms of interconnected third party relationships – with any other European country barring say the UK, which also has similar close national security linkages with the US, but whose military capabilities have suffered from several years of low defence expenditures.
In all these respects, it is significant that after his initial appearance at the National Press Club in July, Japanese Ambassador Sumio Kusaka was back in the press in September assuring readers that Japan was happy to work with ASC Pty Ltd in whatever arrangements suited the new Turnbull government in progressing the SEA 1000 acquisition, including building the subject submarines in Australia.
The Ambassador went on to confirm there was no strong opposition amongst the Japanese people to close cooperation with Australia on developing an evolved Soryu-class submarine that featured a much longer range in order to meet the specific requirements of the Royal Australian Navy. Kusaka also stressed it was very important to Japan to be able to design world-class submarines, and noted that Prime Minister Abe had been an early caller to Malcolm Turnbull in order to congratulate him on becoming Australian Prime Minister.
The Director General for Acquisition Reform in the Japanese Ministry for Defence, Masaaki Ishikawa, was similarly reported by Reuters as confirming all that Kusaka had said, and adding that Tokyo was willing to train hundreds of engineers in the country’s manufacturing hub of Kobe, as well as in Australia, as part of its response to the Government’s call for overseas manufacture, hybrid manufacture and local submarine manufacture options.
A week into his tenure as new Industry Minister, Christopher Pyne finally picked up on these points and confirmed to media that all three international bidders for the future submarine contract had indicated a willingness to build their vessels in Australia. Pyne responded the Government would nevertheless “go through the proper processes and make an announcement at the appropriate time.”
Beyond the future frigates and corvette-size offshore patrol vessels announced by Tony Abbott, the largest pillar of the Government’s three-pronged naval shipbuilding plan is the Competitive Evaluation Process (CEP) being used to determine the future submarine partner. Overseen by an independent panel of experts, the CEP was billed as ensuring that capability, cost, schedule, and “key strategic considerations” – along with Australian industry involvement – would be carefully and methodically considered by the Department of Defence in framing up its SEA 1000 solution recommendations.
Assuming that capability, cost and schedule are relatively constant across all three CEP respondents, and now France, Germany and Japan have all undertaken to progress a local build, the discriminator in the Future Submarine selection decision comes down to the so-called key strategic considerations. On the basis of this criteria alone, the Japanese option remains at the top of the list followed not too unexpectedly – due to its continuing diplomatic and economic interests in the Indian and Pacific Oceans – by France.