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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took a major step toward changing Japan’s security relations when Japan and Australia, after long negotiations, agreed to jointly develop stealth submarine technology. In doing so, Mr. Abe hopes to achieve three goals: Deepen Japan’s security cooperation with countries other than the United States, allow Tokyo to take advantage of the global defense industry and make Japan a more attractive potential partner for capitals other than Canberra, all the while presenting Japan as a regional counterweight to China.
For both countries, submarines are a particularly potent part of their arsenal. Since the Australian and Japanese navies are relatively small, they must rely on advanced asymmetric weapons such as submarines to counter the quantity of potential enemy forces. Japan has close to twenty diesel-electric submarines, and Australia is planning on building a dozen new subs to replace its current six older submarines.
Both countries also depend on global trade routes, and thus are increasingly focused on maintaining access to the maritime commons through strategic choke points north of Australia or in the East China Sea. Sharing submarine technology will make both countries more central to responding to regional crises and preserving stability in Asia.
For Mr. Abe, though, the agreement has greater meaning. First, he is attempting to shake up Japan’s six-decade security posture by developing new strategic partners for Tokyo. This allows Tokyo to focus on and stress its own agendas separately from alliance talks with Washington. Not dominating U.S.-Japan security talks with mention of bases or status of forces agreements may mean that Japanese defense planners can focus on increasing their activities abroad, including joint training, exercises, and even contingency planning. That would, in turn, increase the range of options Japan can present to Washington for alliance-based actions.
Second, the Tokyo-Canberra agreement is a big step toward opening Japan to the global defense community. Until last year, when Mr. Abe revised the ban on exporting arms, Japan was largely isolated from development and production of defense technology. This meant that Tokyo’s defense procurement was not only more expensive than would be otherwise, but that Japan’s arms makers were also locked out of many opportunities to gain new technology, such as stealth for aircraft.
Now, Tokyo is testing the waters on cooperation that will benefit its own research labs and defense contractors. The submarine agreement can be a model for future collaboration with technologically advanced countries in Asia and even Europe, where Mr. Abe has also sought to increase relations with NATO countries. It could also give Japanese defense firms access to a rapidly growing arms market in Asia and elsewhere, where their quality will be attractive, even though they will have to become more competitive.
Finally, the agreement showcases Japan as a potential security partner for other nations. A key objective for Mr. Abe is to enhance the Japanese relationship with India. Showing how well Tokyo can work with a partner like Australia may encourage New Delhi to consider greater cooperation, and can induce other governments, such as in Singapore or Hanoi, to reach out.
It is easy to see this move as directed against Beijing’s increasingly threatening behavior against the Senkakus or in the South China Sea. Mr. Abe made as much clear at his talk at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this month. Yet his plan is larger than just countering China. It is to make Tokyo an increasingly vital part of political, security and technological cooperation regionally and globally.
Ultimately, the submarine agreement with Australia could make Japan seem like a normal security player in Asia, and one with whom it is natural for smaller nations to partner with on various issues. That would end the anomalous situation of the world’s third-largest economy being largely isolated from regional security and political relationships.
Mr. Abe will have to work to achieve his goals. He must carry through on his promises to reinvigorate the economy and unreservedly join free-trade pacts. Japan cannot expect to be a political partner but an economic outlier.
By offering himself as a strategic partner, he will also have to respond to requests for help and potentially deeper engagement. That means convincing Japanese lawmakers and ordinary citizens that it is in their interest to do so. That will require a national dialogue on Japan’s role in the world that has not yet occurred. Mr. Abe will find that leadership means being prepared to sacrifice some his own goals in order to prove his bona fides to others. That alone could change the perception of Japan around Asia for the better, and force Beijing to reconsider its own coercive actions.
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