A potential submarine deal could help bring the two navies into closer cooperation.
Australia must soon decide whether to buy Japanese, French or German attack submarines to replace its aging Collins-class vessels. An open competition where the best product wins is generally desirable for such purchases. But this case should involve considerations beyond the traditional measures of price and performance.
The French and German designs offer impressive capabilities, and the manufacturers have more experience in foreign military sales than the Japanese. But Japan’s Soryu submarine is an existing, proven performer operating in the Asia-Pacific maritime terrain. It also represents Japan’s desire to deepen its security relationship with Australia so that the two countries’ militaries can operate together seamlessly.
That advantage isn’t so easy to quantify. The Japanese offer is an “all-in” proposition, representing an opportunity to expand cooperation and collaboration with Australia.
Japan chose Australia for its first attempt at a major weapons sale as part of its effort to build up collective self-defense relationships in the Asian and Indo-Pacific regions. This is no accident. Japan’s offer of the Soryu represents tangible proof that Japan considers Australia to be as important a security partner as the United States. It appears Japan’s intention is to use the submarine sale to cement a trilateral relationship with Australia and the U.S.
This approach has its drawbacks. Not only has Japan invested significant political capital in the offer, leaving itself vulnerable to considerable embarrassment if the deal doesn’t go through. It has also created friction with China.
Beijing has labeled Japan’s effort as part of a “China threat theory” that seeks to contain it. Yet given China’s military modernization over the past 15 years and its strident anti-Japanese rhetoric, Japan can hardly be blamed for changing its approach to its defense relationships.
China has also alarmed both Japan and Australia with its expansive and unilateral territorial actions in the East and South China Seas. Its island-building campaign in the South China Sea not only ruined vast expanses of pristine coral reefs but also upset the region’s security equilibrium. The military airfields and naval-support facilities that Beijing has built to back its overreaching claims have been cloaked as civilian settlements.
While some believe that China’s actions in maritime East Asia are coming to a conclusion, the evidence suggests the opposite. In a well-advertised public-relations operation in January, it flew two commercial airliners to the newly reclaimed Fiery Cross Reef in an attempt to present it as a civilian airfield.
China is moving full speed ahead in its military and territorial expansion across the islands that separate its coastal waters from the Pacific Ocean. As China threatens weaker neighbors such as the Philippines and Vietnam via naval units, coast guard and a militia of fishing vessels, the weak response of its neighbors has failed to convince Beijing to modify its behavior.
Japan’s leaders instinctively understand China’s long-term strategy and are preparing themselves for a worst-case eventuality. If unchecked, China will not back down and will eventually lay claim to and take possession of the entirety of the so-called “nine-dashed line” around the South China Sea. It will pick off one nation at a time in its quest for hegemonic dominance.
A united front is required to ensure the peace and security of the region. The foundation of that united front is a trilateral security alliance between Australia, Japan and the U.S.
This submarine sale is about more than merely purchasing the best boat for value. It could be a milestone in the realization that like-minded nations who respect international law must band together to defend themselves from the hegemonic actions of an emerging power.
Mr. Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Mr. Smith is a lecturer at Macquarie University and retired captain in the U.S. Navy.