Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Japanese subs: A once-in-a-generation opportunity

Japanese subs: A once-in-a-generation opportunity
Published 30 Mar 2016 

Hugh White's piece in the Fairfax media last week on the strategic perils of Australia buying Japanese submarines is long on speculation and short on substance.

Professor White takes a more measured position in his later Interpreter post advising against 'Option J', but this reply focuses on the Fairfax piece because it is here that White most clearly (and selectively) lays out the 'big risks'. But he fails to acknowledge both the significant opportunity costs of rejecting the Japanese bid and the bigger risks to Australian interests this poses. Equally worrying is White's failure to frame the deal in terms of the major selection criterion for any Australian sub deal: which subs have the capacity to best serve Australia's defence needs?

Professor White claims that a sub deal with Japan automatically ties us into an alliance with Tokyo. I have not seen the contract the deal would be based on, but am pretty sure it does not include an alliance clause. Contractual obligations aside, I am yet to hear of any Japanese statements remotely suggesting this. The Abe Government clearly is keen to develop a closer security relationship with Australia, and the US is keen to see this happen as a way of 'cross-bracing' the alliances it maintains with both countries.

But to claim that Japan sees the sub deal guaranteeing a fully-fledged alliance commitment from Canberra is pure speculation. What Japanese policy makers do see in the sub deal, however, is an opportunity to further strengthen the existing bilateral strategic partnership, which is still a long way short of committing to militarily support Japan in a conflict.

How this 'sub-induced entrapment' scenario would play out, according to White's argument, is that a failure to come to Japan's aid in the event of a conflict would cause Japan to renege on the deal, thereby leaving Australia without the subs it expected, and our relations with Japan seriously damaged. 'Why wouldn't Japan walk away from the deal?' he asks.

Firstly, that any Japanese government would risk the many important benefits of its bilateral relationship with Australia, not to mention its international reputation as a reliable business partner, by blackmailing Australia over military support, particularly in the absence of any formal alliance commitment, beggars belief. Secondly, the question itself is a red herring. Apart from the extremely unlikely prospect that Japan would provoke a conflict with China, any such conflict almost certainly would involve the US, which would trigger Australia's involvement under the ANZUS alliance.

Put simply, the only way Canberra could avoid involvement in a China-Japan conflict — sub deal or no sub deal — would be if Australians were also willing to sacrifice their relationship with the US rather than take sides against China. Hugh White's argument ignores the fact that the risk of entrapment through closer security relations with Japan stems from our long-standing reliance on US extended deterrence, not our more recent security cooperation with Japan and the prospect of buying Japanese subs. [fold]

So unless Australian security thinking dramatically changes over the next 20 years — that is, changes in a way that would make the prospect of sacrificing our relations with the US and Japan (also unlikely to change; see Brad Glosserman) in favour of China an attractive proposition — buying Japanese subs does not increase our risk of being entangled in a conflict against our interests. Buying Japanese subs will, however, further strengthen the interest-based commitment we have with the US, and by default also Japan; a commitment that successive Australian governments have kept over the last sixty years as insurance against precisely the kind of threat to our broader interests now being posed by an increasingly revisionist China. White's argument amounts to saying we should default on our house insurance premiums as soon as we smell smoke.

The 'big risks' White says are posed by accepting the Japanese sub deal need to be measured against the risks of not taking the opportunity to further deepen security relations with Japan. Most prominent among these risks would be the perception in Beijing that we did not buy Japan's subs because we were afraid of China's growing power. For China's leadership, this would be stunning proof that its strategy of creating division among US allies in the region is working, further emboldening China to become even more adventurous in its attempts to undermine the post-war regional order.

Moreover, by effectively free-riding on US primacy, we are endangering the US commitment to the region and also, therefore, the very core interests we believe the US-led status quo serves. As a middle power, Australia would be foolish to gamble that an order dominated by China's interests and its view of its rightful place in the region would not roll back our ability to influence regional affairs. Finally, we also would forego the related benefits of a broader relationship with Japan, including increased technological cooperation and exchange, greater trade and investment opportunities, and even greater levels of political credibility and trust.

Hugh White recommends we buy European subs because all they want is our money. On this point, he is partially right. The Japanese do want more than our money — they want a stronger and closer relationship. So if Japan has the best subs on offer, and if we value what we already have in terms of a stable regional order, Australia should embrace this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Photo: Australian Defence Image Library

You may also be interested in