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The case for Japanese subs is based on dangerous assumptions about Asia

The case for Japanese subs is based on dangerous assumptions about Asia
Published 4 Apr 2016 

...the idea of the future being different from the present is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thought and behavior that we, most of us, offer a great resistance to acting on it in practice.

— John Maynard Keynes, 1937

This line, quoted as an epigraph to the US intelligence community's Global Trends 2030 report a few years ago, has something to offer our debates today about Australian strategic policy. That is because where one stands on today's big questions mostly depends on how far one accepts the idea that Asia's future strategic order might be different from the present and recent past.

For example, those who find the new Defence White Paper credible tend to expect that Australia's strategic environment over the next few decades will not differ much in essentials from what we have known over the past few decades. Those who see bigger changes looming are more likely to find it wanting.

Likewise, those who think it is a good idea to base our future submarine capability on a closer strategic alignment with Japan expect that the roles, policies and relationships of Australia, Japan and the US will be much the same decades from now as they are today.

Michael Heazle's response to my Fairfax article and Interpreter post on the Japanese bid helpfully makes this clear. He argues that such an alignment would pose to no risk to our interests 'unless Australian security thinking dramatically changes over the next 20 years'. He says there is no reason for that to happen, because our current posture has served us so well for the past 60 years. Why would we ever want to change that, he wonders?

The answer, of course, is that circumstances change, and that policies that have worked well for so long might not work in future. [fold]

Of course if things do not change — if America remains the preponderant power in Asia, Japan remains its close and dependent ally, and China decides it has no choice but to accept that — then it would make perfect sense for Australia's strategic posture to remain unchanged as well.

And the surer you are that this is how things will turn out, the stronger the strategic argument for reinforcing our old posture by choosing Japan as our submarine partner. But the less sure one is that nothing much will change, the more weight one should give to the possibility that both Australia's and Japan's policies might change quite radically. If that happens, our interests might not align closely, or at all, raising big risks to a submarine deal which assumes that everything will stay just as we like it.

One possibility is that America and Japan might align together against China, but with Australia deciding not to join them. Another is that the US-Japan alliance might fade, Japan might confront China and we might choose not to side with it. A third is that Japan, having lost US support, might decide not to support Australia should we confront China. If any of these seem too wildly implausible, then look again at the quote from Keynes.

The reality is we simply do not know how Asia's strategic system will evolve, what role Japan will play, what hard choices Australia will face, and how far those choices might take us from an alignment with Japan three or four decades from now. But there are clear signs that the reassuring certainties evoked by Michael Heazle are already passing. The Japan we see today is already very different from the Japan we have known for decades past, as Malcolm Cook's recent Interpreter post so neatly shows ('Mugabe in Tokyo: The Warping of Japanese Foreign Policy'). And the America we see today is not the America we used to know either.

Things are changing in Asia. It is time we recognise this, and act accordingly.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

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