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Goodbye Option J: The view in Japan

Goodbye Option J: The view in Japan
Published 3 May 2016 

Australia is sending one of its submarines, the HMAS Rankin, to Japan this week for joint training and to promote the bilateral relationship, following news last week that the Japanese company Mitsubishi Heavy Manufacturing lost its bid to build Australia's 12 new submarines. Some commentators in Australia have criticised how the government treated Japan during the bidding process, but what’s the view in Japan?

The Japanese media has taken an active interest in the submarine saga, particularly now that the bidding process has concluded. Japan had enacted reforms to allow for the export of military hardware, and building Australia's submarines would have been the first big project under these reforms. Furthermore, building submarines collaboratively was emphasised in the context of closer strategic Australia-Japan cooperation and Australia-Japan-US cooperation.[fold]

Japan expected that its bid was going to be successful. One Yomiuri Shimbun commentator likened the government’s surprise at the outcome to a fall from heaven to hell. Writing in The Australian, Greg Sheridan's recent article based on interviews with Japanese politicians and foreign affairs commentators, paints a stark picture of how Japan now sees Australia as a strategic partner, particularly in the context of Australia's relationship with China. 

While elements of that view are expressed in Japanese media, by and large Australia's acceptance of the French company DCNS' bid is viewed independently from the broader Australia-Japan strategic relationship. However, it should be noted that the Japanese media tended to focus on why Japan lost the bid, rather than the resulting implications. 

Lack of enthusiasm and experience

One of the most prevalent views in the Japanese media is that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries lacked experience and did not commit to building the submarines in Australia until it was too late. Whereas the French and German bidders actively lobbied the defence and political community in Australia, the Japanese bid was promoted by the Japanese ambassador to Australia. Reluctance by some in the Japanese Defense establishment to export sensitive military technology was a reason given for Japan's apparent lack of enthusiasm. 

Domestic politics 

A majority of articles surveyed identify domestic politics as being a factor in the Japanese bid’s rejection. Some reference is made to former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's decision in early 2015 to introduce the 'competitive evaluation process’ but there is arguably greater emphasis on the impact from changing prime ministers from Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull in late 2015. 

The China factor 

Roughly half of the articles surveyed questioned China’s influence on the bid outcome. [fold] For instance, the Yomiuri Shimbun stated that 'if Australia had paid undue regard to China and rejected that Japanese bid, that cannot be overlooked'. The Nikkei Shimbun stated that the view that Australia did not want to irritate China will spread in the Japanese government. An article published in Newsweek highlighted the short period of time between Turnbull’s trip to China and the submarine announcement, as well as his familial and business ties in China. 

Implications for the Australia-Japan Strategic Relationship

While there is little commentary on the broader implications for the bilateral strategic relationship, a few articles do consider the issue. 

The Sankei News warns that a split in Australia-Japan and Australia-Japan-US cooperation could spur on China’s militarization of the South China Sea. The author considers that joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea are worth considering if it both Australia and Japan want to deepen security ties, and advocates that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should maintain and strengthen the bilateral relationship with Australia, as to avoid the perception that Australia-Japan and by extension Australia-Japan-US cooperation is faltering.

The Yomiuri Shimbun notes that 'Abbott recognised the importance of Australia-Japan-US cooperation. The Turnbull administration must explain what kind of role it will play in the stability of the Asia Pacific region'. 

What the future holds

While the media expressed shock and disappointment at the result, there was no overt criticism of Australia’s handling of the bidding process. Although Turnbull’s policies towards Japan and China were viewed in Japan as being largely consistent with Abbott, who was regarded as very pro-Japanese, the Japanese media will likely see this decision as a point of departure and this view will be reflected in future commentary.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images/JTB Photo

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