“The Australian” of 29 March reported Murray McLean, former Ambassador to Japan, as defending the Japanese submarine bid against criticism that it would amount to a “virtual alliance” that would ultimately thrust us into conflict with China. He reportedly said that “Australia should choose a submarine based on the best technology and the best price”, taking the right decision without “thinking if some other country is concerned about it or otherwise”.
This issue has recently been ventilated both in the press and online, with articles by people including Prof. Hugh White of the ANU. His point has been not so much that China would be concerned about us buying Japanese submarines, but rather that Japan would use a successful submarine bid to enlist us on its side in its on-going rivalry with China, conceivably ending up in armed conflict.
The Japanese submarine issue also came up for discussion at an on the record conference on Indo-Pacific Maritime Security, held last month by the National Security College of the ANU. At that conference a number of Australian speakers said that “of course” the purchase of Japanese submarines would not compromise our ability to make our own decisions on involvement or not should tensions increase to the point of hostilities between Japan and China.
In my view, while in a world of pure reason they might be right, in the real world habits of close consultation and working intimately together in such a vital area of defence would certainly make disassociation difficult should a crisis arise. I think similar factors would already have this effect in regard to the US should that country decide that it had to use military force in the Asia-Pacific and sought our support.
Given the ANZUS Treaty (even though this requires us only to consult), the Marines in Darwin, the enormous amount of US defence equipment used by our armed forces, the amount of intelligence sharing, joint exercises, the secondment of Australian defence units to larger American formations, the doctrine of inter-operability, and the amount of personnel exchanges and “embedding”, including at very high levels, I find it very hard to imagine an Australian Government—particularly given the Defence advice it would most probably be receiving—bold enough to decline a US request for military support and involvement in a future Asia-Pacific “emergency”.
Indeed, a “The Times” article carried in “The Australian” of 30 March quotes an Obama administration official as saying that “Australian leaders are the easiest allies to manage—our allies all give us headaches, except for Australia. You can always count on Australia”.
(Also in “The Australian” of 30 March Paul Kelly quotes Defence Secretary Dennis Richardson as saying that “what comes out of this (Defence) Department (on the submarine project) will be based on a hard-headed assessment of capabilities”, but he concludes his article by noting that “Cabinet, of course, is supreme (and) can decide whatever it wants”.)
According to press reports (“The Australian”, 9 March) the Commander of US Pacific Air Forces, General Lori Robinson, has said that negotiations are under way about rotating USAF bombers and tankers through RAAF bases at Tindall and Darwin. Press reports put this proposal squarely in the context of the South China Sea and China, and speak of the very advanced B1 bombers being involved.
If we eventually decide to purchase the Japanese “Soryu” submarine we will perhaps be getting a very good submarine, but we will also be becoming “embedded” with yet another country deeply suspicious of China. In an article in The Lowy Institute’s “Interpreter” of 30 March the experienced Asia specialist Malcolm Cook cites two recent political statements by the Japanese Government as reflecting “how deep, even neuralgic, Japan’s sense of rivalry with China is”. He goes on to say that “The Japan-China rivalry is deeper and broader than the US-China one, and it is driving deep Japanese policy changes across a wide spectrum”. Indeed many senior people in Japan are keen to build anti-China coalitions, in which they see Australia taking part, together with the US, India and Japan itself.
Our armed forces are already deeply embedded with those of the United States. This brings with it many advantages. A close defence relationship with Japan would also bring advantages. But we need to be very aware that because of this actual and potential embedding we could end up in the extraordinary position of having to join in the use of military force against our largest trading partner, and a country with which we have a Strategic Partnership.
Geoff Miller was formerly Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea and Australian Ambassador to Japan. He was also Director General of the Office of National Assessments.