Hugh White's argument that an Australian decision to buy Japanese submarines will have far-reaching consequences has sparked a lively debate, with posts by Sam Roggeveen, Hugh White, Michael Heazle, Stephan Fruehling, and Hugh White again. The core of White's assertion is that 'Tokyo expects that in return for its help to build our submarines, it would receive not just many of billions of dollars, but clear understandings that Australia will support Japan politically, strategically and even militarily against China.' 

I agree with White up to a point — Japan sees the submarine deal as a 'strategic' issue more than Australia does — but he seems to underestimate Australia's own strategic interests and overplays concerns over the effects of the deal. A Japanese submarine purchase is not holy matrimony.

First, White is right to note that the Japanese Government (and Japanese security experts) do characterise the deal as having a 'strategic' overtone rather than painting it as a pure business deal. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a webpage (in Japanese) that explains the nature of Japan's submarine bid to Australia. It places the sub deal within a broader strategic framework by stating that the two countries have raised their relationship status to a 'Special Strategic Partnership for the 21st Century' (announced by Prime Minister Abe and former Prime Minister Abbott in July 2014), which 'heightened the security and defense cooperation to another level.'

Immediately following this statement, three justifications are offered as to why this submarine deal is important:

  1. Contributing to maritime security issues in the Asia-Pacific;
  2. Expanding trilateral cooperation; and
  3. Improving domestic submarine capabilities.

These are all couched in strategic terms with almost no mention of the business side of things. Japan is clearly signaling that it wants to take the relationship a step forward.

I also agree with White's position that the interests of Japan and Australia do not always align. An undeniable gap exists between Japan and Australia in terms of how they view China. For instance, the recent Darwin port lease issue highlights the gap between Japanese and Australian threat perception. It is difficult to imagine a similar deal in Japan, with or without close US consultation. That said, given the geopolitical proximity of Japan to China, tensions over the Senkaku Islands, and the number of Japanese Self-Defense Force scrambles conducted against Chinese aircraft at an all-time high, the existence of this gap in threat perception is unsurprising.

However, this 'China gap' is narrowing. In my reading of the 2016 Australian Defence White Paper, Australia's concerns regarding China have increased substantially compared to the 2013 White Paper, as exemplified by this statement: 'Australia is particularly concerned by the unprecedented pace and scale of China's land reclamation activities'. Furthermore, the joint-statement of the latest Japan-Australia summit meeting in December 2015, aptly titled 'Next steps of the Special Strategic Partnership,' states that 'the Prime Ministers reaffirmed the special strategic partnership between Japan and Australia, based on common values and strategic interests.' This signals that Australia is also interested in stepping up its relationship with Japan and is prepared to stand up to China's likely complaints about such developments. 

In addition, White seems to be overreacting to the submarine deal. Extrapolating that buying the subs implies Japan is receiving 'clear understandings that Australia will support Japan politically, strategically and even militarily against China' reads too much into the sale. Why does a defense acquisition deal — albeit one that shares 'ultra-sensitive' technology — immediately conjure up a Japan-Australia alliance with mutual defense obligations? White seems to be referring to such an alliance with the following question: 'How willing would we be, ultimately, to take Japan's side in a war, and send our forces — including our submarines — to fight alongside them against China?'

Japan and Australia have been pursuing an incremental deepening of their relationship since the early 1990s. This has been exemplified more recently through the signing of a series of agreements: Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation (2007), the Acquisition and Cross-servicing Agreement (2010), General Security of Military Information Agreement (2012), and Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology Agreement (2014). Throughout this process, there have been calls for a 'quasi-alliance' between Japan and Australia or a strengthening of a trilateral security relationship between Japan, the US and Australia, but I have yet to see any government documents or prominent strategic thinkers arguing that a submarine deal signals Canberra's willingness to enter into a full-fledged alliance, which would be necessary if we expect Australia to do what White described. I am aware of no serious intellectual discussions currently taking place about what a Japan-Australia mutual defense treaty should look like or whether such an arrangement is necessary or not in either the Japanese Government or policy community at large. The submarine deal is not predicated on the eventual conclusion of such an alliance – it should be seen as another step in the incremental deepening of the relationship, not a great leap forward.

White's latest rejoinder quotes John Maynard Keynes on our reluctance to squarely face possible future changes and warns us that 'we simply do not know how Asia's strategic system will evolve, what role Japan will play, what hard choices Australia will face, and how far those choices might take us from an alignment with Japan three or four decades from now.' True enough, but his claim that the submarine deal will semi-permanently lock both countries into a full-fledged alliance is a stretch.

In short, White's concerns may be akin to that of an overly-protective parent who tells his daughter that she shouldn't go on a date with one of her good friends, because he will now expect her to accept a proposal, get married and have three kids. Admittedly, the restaurant that he reserved is a little too expensive for a first date, so he's definitely hoping for a second date – but this doesn't mean that he expects her to plan their next three or four decades together. Such a commitment is scary for her date as well. One of them seems to be relatively more eager than the other, but both are nevertheless thinking of moving the relationship forward. Yes, the future is uncertain, circumstances may change, and their interests will likely ebb and flow. Yet, the dinner is neither an engagement ring nor a marriage certificate, much less a joint bank account for the college education fund of their three future children.

Let's take a deep breath, step back and observe whether this new closer relationship will be good for the both parties in this uncertain environment. After all, they can still go back to being good friends, if things don't work out as expected.

Photo courtesy of the Australian Defence Image Library.