I'm on a short visit to Japan this week courtesy of Japan's Foreign Ministry, and it will not shock you to hear that submarines have been a prominent topic in my discussions with Foreign Ministry and Defence Ministry officials.
It has been interesting to note that these officials are not at all shy about touting what they see as the strategic benefits of a Japanese submarine design. This has been a point of controversy in Australia, with some analysts arguing that picking the Japanese design would be a political statement that ties Australia more closely to Japan and signals hostility or at least wariness to China. In the briefings I have received here, those closer strategic ties are seen very much as a feature of the Japanese bid, not a bug.
The standard of the briefings I have received has been high. Japanese MoD officials told me they are well aware that, early in the bid process, the Japanese bid was criticised in Australia for its marketing efforts compared to the German and French bidders, who have much more experience selling submarines to foreign customers. The Japanese seem to have learned fast in recent months, though they evidently find the process of dealing with federal and state governments a challenge. They are intensely interested in the domestic political angle to the submarine decision, and I had to disappoint them with my non-committal answers to their questions about election timing.
I would not say that the Japanese are exactly confident of winning this contract against the German and French bids (certainly I've heard nothing like the tone of this recent Japan Times headline), but I do get the impression that the bid means a great deal to the Japanese side, and that the implications for Australia of not choosing the Japanese design are far from trivial.
On one level, this is counter-intuitive. Japan-Australia ties have been on an upward trajectory for a few years now, so why would that not continue even if Australia brought its submarines from someone else? Maybe it will, and sentiment on this point was not universal among my interlocutors in Tokyo. But some officials did tell me that Australia-Japan ties would be set back if the submarine announcement did not go Japan's way.
It was also interesting to hear that Tony Abbott's recent intervention in the submarine debate was read rather differently here. Abbott delivered a speech in Tokyo just a few weeks ago strongly endorsing the Japanese bid, which was read back home by analysts such as the Lowy Institute's Euan Graham as clumsy and counter-productive, in that rather than helping the Japanese it actually called into question the integrity of the bidding process which Abbot himself had put in place. Here in Tokyo, Abbott's remarks were read as simple politeness — he was speaking to a Japanese audience, and he tailored his remarks to suit.
Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library