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 endeavour. 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 criticise China’s behaviour 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 defence industry sector — is further testament to the significance he attaches to the Australia–Japan security relationship.
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Image by Royal Australian Navy on Flickr under the CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.