Tony Abbott’s weekend speech in Tokyo, titled 'Against Strategic Pessimism’, was unsurprising in its robust advocacy of Australia’s 'special relationship' with Japan, based on shared values. Mr Abbott’s correspondingly cautious assessment of China should not shock either, notable though it was for including a starkly worded warning about 'countries which turn reefs into artificial islands at massive environmental cost, fortify disputed territory and try to restrict freedom of navigation… putting at risk the stability and security on which depends the prosperity of our region and the wider world'.
Had Mr Abbott left it there, the speech would have been reported and remembered, perhaps as he intended, as a values-led spin on defending the 'rules-based order'. This is a signature phrase in the Australian Defence White Paper launched by Prime Minister Turnbull last week, but commissioned and drafted under Mr Abbott’s watch.
However, Mr Abbott did not leave it there. He went on to comment, in considerable depth, on 'the submarine partnership that Japan is prepared to enter with Australia':
Japan is offering to build a long range version of its Soryu submarine for Australia. This is the world’s best large conventional submarine specifically designed to match the nuclear submarines of other nations.
Japan’s willingness to share defence technology of such sophistication – and the United States’ willingness to work with both Australia and Japan on the installation of the most advanced weapons systems – is a sign of the complete confidence that our countries have in each other.
This intervention is potentially problematic for the Competitive Evaluation Process (CEP), from which the government will choose the international partner, from among French, German and Japanese bids, that will design and build Australia’s Future Submarine. The CEP is run separately to the Defence White Paper and the result is expected later in 2016.
Although Abbott is no longer premier prime minister*, he is still a member of the coalition government. Those in Cabinet, including Defence Minister Marise Payne and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, have toed a studiously impartial line on the submarine bid in order to maintain the integrity of the CEP as a neutral tool 'to balance important considerations including capability, cost, schedule and risks'.
Mr Abbott’s comment that 'if Japan wins the submarine bid, Mitsubishi will be returning to Adelaide', arguably goes further even than promoting the strategic benefits of submarine cooperation with Japan, by specifically identifying with the lead manufacturer behind the Japanese bid. Most potentially damaging of all was Mr Abbott’s comment that 'For Japan, this submarine deal is strategic; for the other bidders, it’s commercial'.
Mr Abbott’s words obviously carry more weight than an ordinary backbencher, and by overtly revealing his partiality towards the Japanese bid he raises an obvious question whether the CEP initiated during his premiership was genuinely entered into in the spirit of fair and open competition. While the selection of the Future Submarine is ultimately for the government to decide, including on strategic as well as technical grounds, the French and German bidders, DCNS and TKMS respectively, might reasonably be expected to raise Mr Abbott’s apparent lobbying on behalf of Japan in the event that their bids are rejected.
For the government, even if the Japanese bid is currently ahead of the competition, this must surely shorten the odds on one of the European bidders going forward with Japan into the CEP, if only to counter impressions that the process is a fig leaf. That is likely to add further to the evaluation costs and potentially draw out a selection process that, according to the DWP2016, is unlikely to begin delivering the first submarines until the early 2030s.
For those who support the strategic arguments for Japan-Australia collaboration, it would be unfortunately ironic if Tony Abbott — the architect and champion of this emerging special relationship — has inadvertently sent a torpedo in the way of Japan’s submarine bid.
Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images
*The term premier is often used to refer to the head of government. In Australia and Canada, it also refers to the the chief minister of a government of a state or province. To avoid confusion, this reference was changed after publication.