Deal risks Lady, or the Tiger? choice with China

MELBOURNE–In 2007, a brand new Australian government announced plans to replace its aging submarine fleet by the mid-2020s.

Almost a decade later, Canberra hasn’t even chosen which country will supply the boats, a key plank of a far-reaching military buildup largely directed at a rising Asia.

Facing both geopolitical and domestic political concerns, successive governments have dithered on replacing six Collins-class submarines, flitting between proposals on who should build the boats and where, in what number and to what specifications.

Secretive bidding

Since February last year, the drawn-out saga has turned into a secretive bidding war between Japan, France and Germany to provide 12 new advanced submarines. Each of the parties — the state of Japan, and commercial firms in the case of France and Germany — is proposing to build a new submarine that will be based on an existing model but modified to meet Australia’s needs.

Australian Collins-class submarine on patrol
Australian Collins-class submarine on patrol

While Canberra has not disclosed its exact requirements, the new submarines will be expected to match the range and durability of its Collins-class boats, which are capable of patrolling waters stretching from the South China Sea to the Southern Ocean circling Antarctica. Based on Australia’s lack of a nuclear energy program, the new model will use diesel-electric propulsion like its predecessor.

It is also likely to feature upgraded capabilities.

“It will have better senses — be much more capable in terms of collecting information about the environment around it and knowing what is going on — better weapons, and better communications systems, so it will plug into a more networked model,” Andrew Davies, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told Asia Times.

Strategic concerns have dominated speculation about the final pick. In its 2016 Defense White Paper released last month, Canberra outlined an ambitious upgrade of its military that analysts saw as a response to China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, where it is entangled in territorial disputes with a host of Southeast Asian countries. Australia is a close defense ally of the United States, which patrols the waters in an ostensible defense of freedom of navigation, but conducts more trade with China than any other country.

Closer Japan-Aussie ties?

With its choice of submarine partner, Canberra is faced with the option of forging closer military ties with Tokyo at the risk of upsetting Beijing.

“The Japanese basically present their case as offering a geo-strategic benefit to Australia and deepening the relationship between US allies in the region,” Davies said. “Whereas the Europeans try to run the opposite argument, and that is that by selecting one of them, we’ll be defusing the tensions between us and China by just entering into commercial partnership with the suppliers on the other side of the world.”

Davies said there were two schools of thought in Australia about the benefits of cozying up to Japan in the area of defense.

“It would basically tighten the net on China a little. Everybody recognizes that — it’s whether you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing is where the schism is.”

Graeme Dunk, manager of Australian Business Defence Industry, said choosing Japan would inevitably anger Beijing, which also protested Canberra’s most recent defense white paper over its “negative” portrayal of tensions in the South China Sea.

“I can’t think that if Australia chooses to go with Japan that China’s going to be too happy about it,” said Dunk. “China will make some noises about it. They make noises about most things.”

Previous Prime Minister Tony Abbot, whose center-right Liberal Party remains in government, was widely speculated to have favored Japan, having cultivated a close relationship with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Japanese Navy submarine Soryu during launch ceremony at Mitsubishi shipyard
Japanese Navy submarine Soryu during launch ceremony at Mitsubishi shipyard

Earlier this month, the ABC, the national broadcaster, reported that the Abbot government had decided in 2014 to have the submarines made off-shore, without specifying Japan as the preferred supplier. In the midst of a leadership challenge the following February, Abbot announced an open tender to explore the option of construction in South Australia, where the Collins-class submarines were built.

“There was the possibility of a leadership challenge at that time and in order to shore up the support of MPs in South Australia, we suddenly had this competitive evaluation process to make them feel a bit happier about what was going on,” said Dunk. “And I think if the leadership issue hadn’t been in there in the background, we wouldn’t be in this position. We probably would have just gone ahead and brought them from Japan.”

Indecision and flip-flopping has plagued the Future Submarine Programme since it was first announced in 2007 by the incoming Labor Party government, led by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Rudd’s 2009 Defense White Paper proposed 12 new advanced submarines, with follow-up plans announcing construction to begin in 2016. By 2011, the government had shelved the proposed timeline, with the exception of the “Initial Design Phase,” which was due to be completed in 2011-2012 but never was.

The current government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced at the start of the month that the new submarines were not expected to go into service until 2030-33, with the current Collins-class boats to have their lifespan extended.

John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia.

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