The submarine debate has been simmering in Australia for quite some time but only rarely has it poked its head above sea-level in the political news cycle, which has mostly been concerned with the unending dramas over Tony Abbott and his likely lifespan as prime minister. Last month we reported on the possibility of a deal with Japan. A few days before last Monday’s spill motion, The Australian suggested that Tony Abbott’s future worried Tokyo enough that the sub deal might be off, except that it was unlikely that it was on in the first place, owing to domestic pressures.
The question of the day has been, what did Abbott promise South Australian politicians in return for votes at the spill (essentially a no-confidence motion)? Meanwhile, the rent-seeking squawks, nationalistic chest beating, political attacks (Abbott: “We could have Kim Jong-il-Class submarines” in response to Labor’s admittedly inadvisable call for open tender), and concern over domestic industry have muddied the main points.
Australia needs to replace its submarines. It needs 12. It currently has six diesel-fuelled Collins class subs which date from the mid-1990s. As we’ve previously reported, there might be an alliance angle in the Japanese sub idea in that this would necessarily increase defense ties and play into some form of three way alliance with the U.S. As we’ve also reported, this does not mean Australia will, or at least its polity will want to, support the U.S. and Japan in a conflict with China. (Whether Australia’s U.S. alliance will compel it to is another matter; Cameron Hawker, writing at the Australian Institute of International Affairs, reckons so.)
The larger issue is that South Australia wants the subs built in its state, though some concede that Australia may not be able to actually design them from scratch. Nuclear-powered subs are out; they will be diesel. Does Australia have the capacity to go it alone? Possibly not. Gaining that capacity is theoretically a good thing and, more theoretically, even a remunerative thing at some point in the medium- to longer-term future, but it may not be practicable.
Prof. James Holmes, formerly of this publication and a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, told Oceania: “I’m very skeptical of Australia’s (or anybody else’s) capacity to build up submarine-building expertise and infrastructure on the fly,” given the limited number of boats it wants to buy and, “I think Australia does well in light of its small populace, but my counsel is to buy Japanese in this case, and to keep any modifications to the Soryu to a bare minimum to hold down costs and maximize compatibility between RAN and allied submarines. The U.S. Navy is used to working with JMSDF boats, so the more commonality the better.” The issue of range, that Aussie boats have to travel much farther than so many others owing to the enormous coastline is, he says, not as relevant as those who want a “Made in Australia” sub believe it is.
Dr. John White, a naval expert on the Defence South Australia board, would probably disagree. In October last year he recommended against the Soryu-class Japanese subs, saying the deal was more complicated than it seemed given that Japan had never exported them before; instead he urged a tender for several international and local companies. What Dr. White did make clear was that it was the shipping lanes that were important: this is where Australia does most of its trade and they must be protected. It is this and not, say, the threat of Indonesia which, according to Professor Hugh White at the ANU, was still a quietly vexatious issue of the 2013 Defense White Paper, that must occupy Australia.
Helen Clark was based in Hanoi for six years as a reporter and magazine editor. She has written for two dozen publications including The Diplomat (as Bridget O’Flaherty), Time, The Economist, the Asia Times Online and the Australian Associated Press.