I'm usually cautious about extended metaphors, but Akira Igata's neat depiction of Japan and Australia as a young strategic couple on a first date is illuminating as well as charming. However I don't share his reassuring conclusion that there will be no harm done if the candle-lit dinner does not lead to a long-term commitment.

That is because what Australia and Japan would agree to share in Mr Igata's metaphor is not a dinner for two but a multi-decade program which is central to Australia's future military capability. If the first date doesn't go well the two people can walk away with no harm done. But if the strtageic relationship with Australia does not live up to Japan's expectations for decades to come, then the future of the submarine project is thrown into doubt.

This is the necessary corollary of Japan's reasons for wanting to be Australia's submarine partner in the first place. Japan is willing to share its submarine secrets with us because it hopes and expects Australia to be a close strategic partner — an ally — in the future. We can hardly expect them to keep sharing those secrets with us if their hopes and expectations are disappointed.

So, to push the metaphor a step further, Japan is offering us not just dinner but an engagement ring on our first date, and if we walk away from the relationship, they will want the ring back. And here the metaphor breaks down, because a successful submarine project depends not just one a one-off transfer of technology and skills, but on continual interaction and exchange – and hence on continued Japanese trust and goodwill for decades into the future. 

So if we choose the Japanese option, Australia would be betting the future of our submarine capability on our future willingness and ability to meet Japan's expectations of a long-term close strategic alignment. And in the fluid power politics of Asia today, that is a bet we would be most unwise to make.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ARTS_fox1fire.