On 20 February, Defence Minister Kevin Andrews outlined for the first time details of the acquisition strategy for Australia's future submarine program. An authoritative press statement was long overdue and sorely needed to provide some clarity given the recent debate and confusion on the submarine issue.

Mr Andrews' statement sought to allay domestic concerns that a future submarine contract might not provide for any significant Australian involvement in the program (notably of ASC in Adelaide) and also explained the nature of the 'competitive evaluation process' to be used in choosing an international partner to be selected from not just Japan but also Germany and France.

Effective communication with the Australian public about such a huge and expensive project spanning decades is essential if there is ever going to be anything like a consensus that spans the community and the political divide.

The public understands the need for confidentiality due to commercial or diplomatic sensitivities, especially when sensitive defence contracts are involved. However, any sniff of secret or special deals or a perceived failure to follow due process is a recipe for controversy and heightens the risk that a decision might not be well understood or broadly accepted and therefore more vulnerable to being overturned by an incoming government. Any further delay in the future submarine program or the risk of an adverse impact on our diplomatic relationships caused by further change would not be in the national interest.

Until recently Japan looked set to be awarded this contract with an initial agreement between Prime Ministers Abbott and Abe expected some time this year. The 'competitive evaluation process' seems certain to delay any such announcement at least until the end of the year and it also opens up the possibility that Japan may lose out to Germany or France. 

Notwithstanding what are likely to be strong bids from Germany and France, there is good reason to think that, despite the forebodings of some commentators about the high risks of buying Japanese submarines, Japan could still be awarded the contract in partnership with ASC.

In fact the process outlined by Defence Minister Andrews makes it more politically manageable to award the contract to Japan than it was previously. This is because, if followed, the process outlined should help reduce public perceptions of any special deal.

Prior to the Defence Minister's announcement, there was certainly evidence of concern in Japan at recent developments in Australia. An article in the Nikkei Asian Review on 20 February penned by its Australia-based correspondent before the Andrews announcement reported that Japan is worried Prime Minister Abbott no longer wields the power he once did and that the closeness of relations between Japan and Australia seen during Mr Abbott's term so far as prime minister could be affected, particularly if he were to lose the Liberal Party leadership or the next election.

But although the formal announcement of a competitive evaluation process for Australia's future submarine program may be a short-term setback for Japan's aspirations to develop its defence export industry, Japan is still well placed to be awarded the contract, provided it is able to meet the terms of the process.

Why? Firstly, regardless of what might happen politically in Australia, Japan can be confident in its submarine technology and should be reassured by the fact that there is now a clear process. Secondly, there is a high degree of mutual trust in the bilateral relationship. What is sometimes overlooked is that this trust exists across the political divide including on defence and security issues. In other words, the relationship with Japan has long enjoyed bipartisan support.

Australia's defence and security links with Japan have certainly advanced strongly since Mr Abbott became prime minister, but this is taking place on the basis of ever-broadening cooperation that has been building up steadily over the past ten years or more. The Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation signed in March 2007 between prime ministers Howard and Abe (in Abe's first stint as prime minister) has provided the framework for rapidly expanding defence and security cooperation under not only the remaining months of the Howard Government but also under the six years of the Rudd and Gillard governments and now the Abbott Government. Australia is now solidly in position as Japan's second most important security partner. The respective alliance relationships which Australia and Japan have with the US underpin this growing security cooperation.

In Japan there is a similar degree of bipartisanship. Cooperation with Australia continued to grow strongly when the Democratic Party of Japan held office from 2009 to 2012. During this period the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement was signed and this facilitated the two countries working closely together in recovery from national disasters including the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

There is no question that cooperation with Australia is being further facilitated by Prime Minister Abe's keen interest in regularising Japan's defence posture to enable its armed forces to take action beyond self defence (in strictly limited circumstances), and so that Japan can export its defence materiel and technology. But Japan is taking these steps because it sees them as being in its national interest, not simply because of the closeness of the relationship between the two current prime ministers.

Australia will also keenly pursue its national interests, and if that means a decision to purchase Japanese submarines then this should not, as some commentators argue, risk affecting our relations with China. Australia's national interests dictate that we place a high priority not only on our relations with Japan but also with the US, China, India, Indonesia, and other key Asian countries. Management of these relationships is not a zero-sum game. Each can be developed on its own merits and in ways that maximise Australia's national interests without making one contingent upon the other.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.