Finbar O'Mallon, Japan Times, Feb 10
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott survived a leadership challenge on Monday, but his last-minute pledge to allow an open tender on the construction of new submarines poses a challenge to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who must weigh the political risks of becoming more public about his ambition to tap the global defense market, experts say.
Political analysts agree if the contract is awarded elsewhere, there will be little damage overall to Australia-Japan relations, with plenty of opportunities for the two allies to engage in military ties. But Abbott's latest promise could scare Tokyo away from the now high-profile subs sale just as Abe gears up to persuade a weary public of the need for changes to the nation's security laws and Constitution.
The Australian government's earlier decision to forgo construction of the subs in the state of South Australia had been considered a broken election promise, prompting outrage and protests in the state. The backlash was worsened by then-Defense Minister David Johnston saying he would not trust the government-owned Australian Submarine Corp. "to build a canoe."
Several South Australian Liberal Party lawmakers eventually pressured the government to keep the submarines' construction in the country, after the party suffered in polls partly due to voter backlash over the broken promise.
In the lead-up to the leadership challenge, the South Australian Liberal lawmakers said their support for Abbott was conditional on the submarines being built in their state, according to various Australian media outlets, including the Guardian.
Abbott himself reportedly called state Liberal Sen. Sean Edwards to confirm an open tender would be held for the subs.
Japanese defense officials met late last week to discuss the implications of the leadership challenge on the Y3.5 trillion sale, The Weekend Australian reported Saturday. But it remains unclear whether they will look to maintain the sales pitch.
Fielding questions after the leadership vote, Abbott was asked by a reporter if there was a "secret deal" between him and Abe for the submarines to be constructed in Japan. Abbott denied the allegation, saying "there will be an international partner" and that the Australian government was not ruling out alternative bids from France, Sweden and Germany.
Corey Wallace, an expert on Japanese politics from New Zealand's University of Auckland, said when Japan lifted its nearly 50-year ban on weapons exports in April 2014, its main reason was to gain access to new technologies through joint development of military parts and equipment with international partners.
While the move to open bidding for the subs doesn't rule Japan out from making the sale, Wallace said "an open tender would require significant public relations activity on the part of Japanese companies and quite possibly the government.
"A high-profile arms export competition is probably something that will raise the image of Japan becoming a global military power, which could be unwelcome as the Abe government tries to pass controversial security legislation," Wallace added.
In the current Diet session lasting through June, the government is planning to introduce more than 10 bills to revise the Self-Defense Forces Law and others in line with last year's Cabinet contentious decision on collective self-defense. That decision would allow Japan to come to the aid of an ally under attack.
Wallace also said that the tender could "touch upon some sensitivities that the Japanese government would rather avoid."
Some of those "sensitivities" relate to Abe's desire to push for a national referendum on revising the nation's war-renouncing Constitution, Wallace said. The Abe government, he added, may be unwilling to waste political capital on pursuing the sale while working to convince voters on the merits of collective self-defense.