MELBOURNE–Australia’s choice of a French supplier for 12 next-generation submarines puts a dampener on burgeoning defense ties with Japan, often pegged as the natural partner to counter rising Chinese influence in cooperation with the United States.
Canberra’s choice of Paris-based firm DCNS drew a disappointed reaction from Tokyo, which many analysts had favored for its strategic significance as a mutual U.S. ally and Asian power. The three bidders had also included German firm TKMS.
Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatan described Tuesday’s announcement as “deeply regrettable,” calling on Australia to explain its decision.
Previous Prime Minister Tony Abbot, who lost the top post in a September leadership spill, was widely thought to have favored Japan for the $40 billion-project before being pressured into holding a competitive evaluation.
Shortly after taking office, he called Japan the country’s “best friend in Asia” and cultivated a close relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“I think Japan was seen to have the inside running if the decision was to be made on strategic grounds,” Andrew Davies, an analyst at the Canberra-based Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told Asia Times. “I think there was a strong positive there. I think the Americans would have preferred a Japanese solution, and I think the former Abbot government absolutely preferred a Japanese solution.”
Australia has increasingly signaled its intention to act as a buffer to growing Chinese assertiveness, particularly in the South China Sea where Beijing is embroiled in a raft of territorial disputes with Southeast Asian nations. The conservative Liberal Party-led government’s 2016 Defense White Paper attracted considerable attention for its focus on the tensions, including a public rebuke from China.
Along with the U.S., Canberra already conducts regular sea and air patrols in the area. It has also previously joined Washington and Tokyo in protesting Beijing’s contentious island-building project in the waters.
Amid these tensions, Australia has in recent years appeared to be moving toward Tokyo, despite conducting its biggest portion of trade with Beijing.
On a visit to Tokyo in February, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who retained her portfolio from Abbot’s tenure, trumpeted plans for more military exchanges and combined exercises between the countries.
In the end, strategic concerns appear to have lost out to technical specifications, with the French design, a modified version of its Shortfin Barracuda, seen to have size and propulsion advantages, according to Davies.
“The Japanese got dragged into a competition with a couple of commercial European firms and they didn’t enjoy that at all,” said Davies. “And now they’ve lost face and been embarrassed as well as that. So, all in all, this has been a quite unpleasant experience for Japan. And I expect that for the next few months or even longer, there’ll be a distinct cooling in the relationship between Australia and Japan.”
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull insisted, however, that the “special strategic partnership” with Japan remained a priority while announcing the winning bid in Adelaide, the city in South Australia where the boats will be built.
Even if relations temporarily suffered, external circumstances would continue to push Australia and Japan together in the long term, Davies said.
“I think the things that brought Australia and Japan together to start talking about this in the first place are still there: The rising Chinese hard power in the region and the competition between China and the United States and its allies,” he said. “And I think Australia and Japan will eventually end up with a big defense relationship anyway.”
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.